Driver's ed, the musical

By Daniel Dunkle | May 19, 2017

Christine does not yell. She sings.

As Wesley, age 16, with his learner's permit, bombs the Rockland rotary for the first time, she starts in from the back seat. "Please slow down as you go into the turn..." Her alto voice lilts the words in a bizarre mix of musical proficiency and abject terror.

I turn to look at her blanched face.

"What. Was. That?"

"I try not to yell, like you do," she says, defensively.

Wesley is wide-eyed, the muscles in his jaw clenched, learning to drive with the whole nerd herd -- his mother, father and baby sister -- all in the car.

I am sitting in the shotgun seat, not because I am interested in telling him how to drive, but because it is the most comfortable seat in the car. Christine is in the back with sister Sami-Jo. It's a sunny day in Rockland.

I have found that it's more difficult than it looks to tell another person what you want them to do in the time it takes a teenager to drive a few hundred feet.

"It's over here. Turn here. Here! Slow down! Stop!"

Wesley shouts back, "I know!"

"Then why'd you keep going?"

"I don't know!"

Most of the time I don't even communicate in words. I just grunt and point.

"WHAT DOES THAT MEAN!?" Wesley screams.

I try to figure out how to say it means, "Turn left two streets ago."

Everything I say sounds way more critical than I mean it to. "Why did you do that?" or "Either stop or go in an intersection, don't roll slowly through it," "He who hesitates is lost!" "GO!" "STOP!"

Part of the challenge is that Wesley is trying to drive a better car than we currently own. He expects minute movements of the steering wheel to result in corresponding shifts in the direction of the vehicle, but our 12-year-old Chevy Equinox turns more like the Titanic than your average car. You have to keep turning the wheel hand over hand to get it to start to move.

For some reason we can't say, "Keep turning the wheel." Suddenly we're the pit crew from some racing movie. "Cut it! More! Harder, harder!"

Wesley pants and quivers with rage, gripping the wheel, our tires straddling the line of the parking space.

"You should have cut it," I say, helpfully.

He starts hollering at both of us, a stream of rage and accusations that leave the metal of the car humming for a few seconds after he stops. People walking past us to the grocery store stop to see what we're doing to the poor boy.

Really he's doing pretty well. I can remember driving around Hampden and Bangor with my dad. Dad hated the radio, so we couldn't have any music, a rule that left me feeling decidedly deprived. Dad sort of moaned mournfully rather than yelling or grunting. It was actually a bit like Christine's singing. Mostly he used the age-old parenting skill of repeating my name.

"Danny... Danny, don't go over into the shoulder. We're in the dirt, Danny!"

I used to feel like I had to move over to the right to avoid the oncoming traffic. Remember that? Wesley did that a little at first, too.

"Slow down, Danny! Slow down! Danny!"

Dad had been against my going to driver's ed right away, but Mom hadn't. I remember her overruling him on that one. She always pushed for me to be more independent. The car came right about the time the job did. I can remember it was about this time of year when I was 15 and she said, "If you think you're going to sit around all summer, you've got another thing coming."

I remember swearing in my head when she said that. That had been exactly what I was planning to do. Instead, I ended up washing dishes in a restaurant before being fired and downgraded to pumping gas at Wing's Citgo.

Looking back, maybe I should have taken option two and seen what that other thing was that I had coming. Mom talked about it the whole time I was growing up.

This was back when you got your license and you were immediately free to go driving around with your friends. I remember the day of my driver's test. The instructor was a grumpy old guy, whom I remember particularly because he had the biggest case of "bat in the cave" I ever saw. The whole cave was closed for business that day, in fact. In my mind I remember a nasal whistle, but that may have been my imagination.

Distracted as I was, I somehow managed to pass.

Dad nodded curtly in the parking lot and handed me the keys to my little hatchback Mercury Lynx. "Good, see you at home."

I was at the DMV in Bangor and realized as I sat behind the wheel, watching Dad drive off, that I didn't remember how to get home. I had never driven by myself anywhere before.

But the sense of freedom in that moment, even lost as I was! There's nothing like it. Driving my own car for the first time. I remember the song that was playing: "Hold on" by Wilson-Phillips. Oh yeah, I was one of the cool kids!

I want that freedom for Wesley, but I fear it too. I know all too well there's no guarantee of safety for any of us on the road. Even if we do everything right, there's no controlling the other guy.

That, more than anything, is the feeling of raising a teenager, the helpless knowledge that you're about to send your precious son or daughter to their own adventures, and there's no way you can protect them all the time.

So next time Christine starts backseat singing, I know what song to request.

This is going to be just like my first solo drive. We have no idea where we're going, so all we can do is "Hold on."

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