Teaching Sam to Drive

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Dropping the Booster Rocket

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?"


"Want to..."


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.


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