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Okay, you have to slow way down here," I'm saying. Sam, at the wheel, doesn't respond. He's concentrating too hard to speak. His hands, correctly positioned at 10 and 2 o'clock, grip the steering wheel so tight his knuckles are white, and his face, furrowed in concentration, is beginning to turn red. It occurs to me to wonder if he's actually holding his breath. Then it occurs to me to wonder if he's forgotten how the brakes work on our 12-year-old Camry. This is not his first time behind the wheel, but he's never parked before, and he's approaching the last row of spaces in the supermarket lot without decelerating in the least.
"Before you pull in, you have to slow to almost a stop," I say. (What I don't mention: "Especially if the next car is a black Jaguar whose owner has chosen the last row in the lot to avoid open-door dings." My 15 year-old is about to challenge this theory.)
Sam plows forward, clearing the Jag by a mere quarter inch.
"Honey, slow down! " I insist. The car keeps moving. Now I'm less worried about property damage and more worried about death. "Stop the car!"
Sam, with the bony knees of his 6-foot-2 frame jammed under the steering wheel, untangles his size-12 feet and stomps on the pedal. The wrong pedal. The car lurches forward -- up and over the cement barrier at the end of the parking space, over the sidewalk curb and straight toward traffic streaming past us on the crowded road.
I throw my arms up over my face. Sam, reordering his knees, finally stomps on the other pedal. The car slams to a stop a foot from the road. We look at each other, panting.
Sam says a word he's not allowed to say, turns off the car and hands me the keys. There's a finality to the gesture. If an alien starship arrived at the Kroger parking lot this minute and beamed him aboard, never to return to his loving mother's arms, he'd go. Gladly.
I may have the only teenager in America who isn't itching to drive a car. It's not that Sam isn't desperate to get away from me. He is desperate -- a fact he does not hesitate to point out daily -- but for the past few years he's already been quite successful at ditching his parents. He walks, bikes, or calls the city shuttle bus that comes on demand. And when he wants to visit a friend who lives too far away, my husband or I will almost always give him a ride. Sam just pops in his iPod earbuds, turns up the volume, and zones out till the car magically deposits him, through no effort of his own, exactly where he wants to be.
He understands that he needs to learn how to drive a car if only because the day is coming when he will want to ask a girl out on a date, and a teenage girl in a prom dress isn't the best candidate for riding on the handlebars of his secondhand bike. But at this exact moment, girlfriendless, he has no urgent need to drive anywhere. And the idea of being stuck in a car with me or his father, without an iPod, for the 50 hours of supervised driving practice our state of Tennessee requires before he can get his license is a powerful disincentive to becoming an apprentice driver. "Want to drive me to the grocery store?" I ask brightly a couple of times a week.
"Want to drive to Target?"
It's ironic that I'm the one who's nudging Sam toward automotive independence. Apart from the fact that I'm absolutely terrified of setting him free in a car, there's the fact that I didn't actually learn to drive myself until I was out of college. My parents had only one car and they couldn't afford the astronomical cost of insuring a teenage driver. Even if I had a driver's license, I was never going to be allowed to use it. So right up to my second year of graduate school I walked wherever I needed to go or caught a ride with one of my friends.
And that explains why I'm working harder, now that Sam's birthday is looming in January, to make sure he learns to drive: As nervous as I feel about letting him behind the wheel alone, I'm much more anxious about letting him drive with any other 16-year-old. Sam is instinctively cautious and amazingly levelheaded. Once he gets the hang of operating a car -- especially the brakes -- he's going to be a really good driver. I can't think of any other 16-year-old boy I could say the same for. If Sam's going to be leaving the house without an adult copilot anyway, and very soon, I'd feel a whole lot safer if he's the person in charge of the car. And I know that the only way Sam will ever become a safe driver is to drive, a lot.
Nevertheless, I'm beginning to realize that, as a mother, I'll never feel truly safe again. Tennessee is ranked among the top 10 states for automobile-related teen fatalities in the country, and it's hard not to worry -- even with a really good kid -- about the twin temptations of speed and alcohol that seem to come hand in glove with teenage boys and automobiles. So as much as I urge Sam to take the wheel whenever we go somewhere together, there's a part of me that's almost relieved when he shrugs me off. It's classic ostrich stuff: If he's in no hurry to drive away, then how far, after all, can he really get?
It's not just the driver's license that's at issue. It's what the license represents. When a boy turns 16, a friend of mine says, he drops the last booster rocket and leaves childhood far behind, entering a whole other dimension. That's the image I can't get out of my mind every time Sam squeezes his lanky frame into our car and turns the key. The boosters are already firing, and my heart is starting to pound, my ears filled with the sound of their roar. I dread the day when he leaves me behind, not even noticing that I'm standing at the door, waving frantically as he heads out of our driveway, down the street where only half a second ago he was learning to ride a two-wheeler, past the dead-end sign, and away.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2007.