(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for The Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)
Gently, at first, and then with considerable pressure, her foot presses down and she eases out of the warm, dark space that held her safe until this moment. Little by little, her toes dig and prod until an unexpected burst of energy catapults her into the waiting sunlight.
The van is out of the garage, and my first new driver is born.
We inch ever closer to the basketball hoop across the driveway and onto the adjacent strip of grass when she simultaneously lurches the van backward and forward, shifting from reverse to drive with a “glug.” Not something I've heard before. This can't be good for my transmission.
“You need to come to a complete stop before you change gears, honey,” I remind her kindly.
“Oh. Right. Sorry.”
Nobody can quite prepare you for the moment when you hand your teenager the keys to a two-ton vehicular monster, lock yourself in its passenger seat, and entrust your very life to a person whose on-road driving instruction is measured in mere minutes 360 minutes to be exact.
After just 24 classroom hours and six hours behind the wheel with her instructor, the unflappable “Mr. R.,” my daughter holds a learner's permit entitling no, requiring her to slide into the driver's seat and take years off my potential life expectancy.
But look around. Every driver in every big city and small town from Maine to Modesto had a parent who took them out to practice, all the while pressing hard on the floor mat in a fruitless effort to stop the car before making contact with a mailbox or a tree or the Lexus in front of them. If they could do this, so can I.
So here we are, on our way to the grocery store.
She spent the morning digging through kitchen cupboards in an effort to find something we desperately need and an excuse to drive me shopping.
I resisted, but it turns out we actually do need milk, bread and something for dinner. She grabs the keys and after a lengthy readjustment of seat, mirrors and air vents, we're under way.
Immediately, it's clear Mr. R. didn't teach “how to turn the car from one road to another.” Funny, seems like he might have covered this. But each time we reach a corner, she puts on the turn signal and slows appropriately, only to die out in the middle of the turn.
“You need to give it some gas as you're coming out of the turn,” I say.
“Oh. Right. Sorry.”
At the next corner, we sputter again. “No really, honey, you need to give it some gas. If you don't, we're going to be hit from behind because the drivers in back of you think when you start to make a turn, you're actually going to complete it.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry.”
But on the main road, we're faced with yet another turn. I start thinking about where we could shop that wouldn't require us to alter the direction of the car. Again, the signal. Again, the brakes. Again, no gas.
Fear of the accident I described with extraordinary accuracy at the last corner overtakes me. This time I shout, “Go go go go go go go go!”
The combination of panic and repetition seems to have done the trick and she puts her foot down hard. We jump out of the turn and up a hill until I shout, “Slow down, slow down, slow down, slow down.”
Self-preservation is the greatest teacher.
In some families, training new drivers is dad's job. So far, in our household, this isn't the case. For one thing, my husband drives a stick shift, and while he professes a strong belief she should learn to use one for her own good (“What if there's an emergency and the only car at home is mine?”), there doesn't seem to be any urgency to get her over to the church parking lot and practice changing gears.
But there's also the language barrier. Men say things like “check your tachometer” and “reduce the degree of torque” instead of screaming “Pick a lane!” and “Stop stop stop stop stop!”
We make it to the grocery store, get our food and head back in the van for the drive home. Incredibly, she's making progress on the turns, which now are uninterrupted, if not smooth, and I praise her improvement. “You're doing great,” I tell her, and I mean it.
We don't talk much on the return trip. It's probably not a good idea to pick at every little thing while she's still getting used to the feel of the car, the curve of the road. Besides, I'm busy wondering how she went from eating my car keys in the grocery store to driving me there.
The year we have ahead to practice driving will fly by like the 15 years that brought us to this point. Before I know it, she'll be behind the wheel of her own car, choosing its direction and setting it on a course of her own design.
Who knew in order to teach her to leave me, I'd have to trust her with my life?
Then again, she's always trusted me with hers.