Wednesday, May 4, 2011

New Driver

Our third, and youngest, child earned her Instructional Permit last October and has been learning how to maneuver a vehicle on our city streets since. A couple of months ago, she tackled highway driving and I was reminded of this short essay I wrote a few years ago when one of our boys was learning how to drive.
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I wasn't expecting anything out of the ordinary the evening I attended my 14-year-old son's band concert in our neighboring northwest Iowa town. I've made the 21-mile trip so many times I know where the police officer usually parks and where the deer are most likely to appear. But, this trip was different:  He drove home.

He'd passed the written test and earned his instructional permit two months earlier. We'd practiced the basics in our university's parking lot and on the two-mile route from our home to the middle school. Each time, he'd signaled, turned, and parked without incident. But, this was my first experience in the passenger's seat when he’d be accelerating to 55 miles per hour.     
He was unusually quiet as we turned onto the highway, and we rode in silence for several miles.  Determination to prove competence and readiness replaced the bravado I saw in the parking lot, where he had adjusted the rear view mirror and confidently waved good-bye to a friend.  I folded my hands on my lap and concentrated on the dotted lines, the speedometer, and the car in front of us.

He became more talkative as his comfort level rose, but we didn't talk about driving "how tos" as I thought we might. Instead, his questions started with "what if."

"What if a deer jumps out in front of me? 
“What if I'm at a railroad crossing and I can see the train, but the bars aren't down? 
“What if my speedometer says I'm going 55, but the cop says I was going 60?"

Our discussion about the challenges of driving at dusk in a rural community, the cross at the railroad crossing four blocks from our house, and the importance of being a courteous driver segued to issues beyond basic learn-to-drive instructions. One subject led to another:  friendships -- peer pressure -- responsibilities -- consequences.

Thirty minutes later, we pulled into the garage. I congratulated him, and he ran into the house to announce his return. I sat in the car for another minute, somewhat surprised that it hadn’t been as difficult to ride shotgun as I thought it would be.

It did, however, emphasize the speed at which he’s accelerating toward adulthood ... and how important my time in the passenger seat is.