“What is a hysterectomy?” a friend’s lanky fourteen-year-old demanded, slamming his book bag on the kitchen table and opening the refrigerator door.
Inured to such abrupt greetings and mildly pleased at the prospect of a substantive conversation with her teenage son, the mother launched into a full discourse on female plumbing, surgical technique, and hormone therapy. “Is that what you wanted to know?” she asked, noting his impatience.
“Nope. What I need to know is can you get one? Alan’s mother had one last week, and he’s getting a hardship driver’s license Tuesday.”
Two of my three sons are licensed drivers now, and I’m relieved that neither license required me to undergo surgery. There are, however, some hardships inherent in living with beginning drivers. And, as with a hysterectomy, there is an irrevocability—a “no going back”—about the whole process.
My initial experiences with a driving child were gentle enough. Jack, my eldest, took his driver’s education course while at boarding school in Austin. He knows MoPac, Interstate 35, Loop 360, and Ben White Boulevard, but he’s still a little hazy on his hometown, Dallas. He has shaved the side mirror off a car while backing out of the driveway, been ticketed for doing 40 in a 30 mph zone on his way home from the dentist, been sideswiped and rear-ended by classmates at school. But because I never witnessed his learning to drive and never winced at his early uncertain lane changes, I have an unwarranted confidence in his driving ability.
With my second son, Drew, whose sixteenth birthday came earlier than those of most of his classmates, I developed a callus on my right foot from pressing phantom brakes on the passenger side. My sweaty hand clung to the handrail above the window, and even on the hottest days of summer, even in a linen blouse, I never failed to fasten my seat belt when I rode with him. He resented my alerting him to stop signs and one-way streets, so I settled for sucking air through my teeth each time he ignored one or swiveled his head to the rear and abruptly switched lanes, leaving me alone to assess the changing traffic in front of us. A new driver’s impulse is to swerve slightly away from oncoming traffic, so I learned to steer empathetically with my stiffened body, leaning toward my young driver when the passenger side seemed destined to be sheared away by a truck driver dissatisfied with the reduced right-lane space my son offered him.
I willingly left Central Expressway driving instructions to the foolhardy driver’s ed instructor. When I venture onto that treacherous roadway, I choose the lane I need to be in immediately and do not cut in and out of traffic, regardless of the pace. I have read stories about drivers’ being armed, and I try not to antagonize anyone, especially those with bumper stickers that oppose gun control or read, “Shit Happens.” After driving in Dallas for nearly twenty years, I still consider each safe entrance made from the Monticello ramp in my four-cylinder station wagon a divine dispensation. Deciding when to enter the flow of traffic and accelerating accordingly seem to require judgment and experience that I’m still acquiring. I lack the courage to accompany any sixteen-year-old on his first attempt.
I wasn’t always such a coward. In my teenage years, when Texas was a more rural state, kids were licensed to drive at fourteen. I don’t think that statute was enforced with any regularity in my hometown of Texarkana. Besides, unlaminated paper licenses without pictures were easily altered. My sixth-grade boyfriend had been driving a tractor and a truck on a farm since he was eight. By the time we were in the seventh grade (he was twelve), my parents allowed me to ride with him in his brother’s shiny red 1951 Ford with the courting knob. Well, he’d had four years of driving experience.
Driver’s education is now mandatory in Texas for drivers under the age of eighteen. I’m glad. The newest drivers in my home are the last of the babies who lived dangerously. They wore no seat belts in their infancy, and I don’t recall much restraint in their baby seats other than my swatting their legs every time they tried to climb out. They bounced along beside me in our ‘65 Chevrolet in unanchored, graham cracker-encrusted baby seats that allowed them to see the world, baby seats designed to hurl them headfirst through the windshield in the event of an accident. Only my youngest son, born after the stiffer safety laws were enacted, has known a consistently cautious and buckled-up life. His brothers frequently remind him, “William, childhood is not what it used to be.” Irrationally, I believe that their early experiences make them freer spirits behind the wheel and any caution that driver’s education instills is on the side of the angels.
The driving school that we selected for Drew cost almost as much as summer camp and didn’t last as long. For one hour each evening for three and a half weeks, my son and a gaggle of other gangly fifteen-year-olds gathered in a hotel meeting room to be lectured on the rules of the road and to view the Department of Public Safety’s films on collisions, which the boys dubbed “Crispy Critters.” Besides the classroom work, they did seven cumulative hours of driving in nice automatic Buicks. Judging from the ketchup stains on my son’s shirt and the milk shake cups he returned with each evening, I surmised that maneuvering past a fast-food window had replaced parallel parking on the driver’s test. Dave, my son’s driving instructor, was clearly more relaxed in the passenger seat than I was. Drew came home every night with jokes that I could never have told or found amusing while taking a suburban corner at thirty miles an hour.
Nothing in the driver’s ed curriculum, however, prepares a teenager for his first experience with the governmental bureaucracy that