The Driving Lesson A father and daughter teach each other about truth, happiness, and independence during a simple teenage rite of passage.

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Editor’s note: This essay was originally published March 1997 in the African-American magazine (now defunct) Emerge, Vol. 8, Issue 5.

 

 

About eighteen months ago, I taught my oldest teenaged daughter how to drive. It was at the same time that I read to both my daughters J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which I did largely because I was teaching it to a class and I thought my children would be interested in a book about growing up absurd, so to speak. Not to say that I was trying to rear them that way. Naturally, I had not thought that a book about an upper-class, white teenaged boy written in the late 1940s would not be especially relevant. I always assume that people should be interested in learning about two things: themselves and everything that is not themselves.

Teaching Linnet how to drive is, I firmly believe, one of the great accomplishments of my life as a parent, not because it was difficult, although it had its challenging moments, but because I learned a great deal about myself and about my daughter, as well. And even this Catcher in the Rye business turned out to be more useful than it seemed at first.

When my daughter turned fifteeen and-a-half, she applied for and received her learner’s permit. She had thought of little else since she turned fifteen except learning how to drive. It meant a great deal to her, which struck me, at the time, as odd. When I was her age, I did not know how to drive, did not apply for a learner’s permit to take driver’s education at my high school, as I thought it would do me very little good. My mother was too poor to own a car. Besides, she did not know how to drive and I lived in the middle of South Philadelphia, where public transportation was readily available and in many instances more convenient than owning a car. (Where in heaven’s name could you park it?) My oldest sister, who has lived in Philadelphia most of her life, still does not know how to drive. But my daughter was living in decidedly different circumstances, a two-car, middle-class family, and in a suburb where public transportation is sporadic and far from convenient. It certainly doesn’t take you anywhere you want to go. In a sense, she understood very rightly that if she were to have a period of her adolescence independent of her parents, she needed to learn to drive. She told me this in no uncertain terms and cut me short when I began to reminisce about growing up in Philadelphia. “I’m not growing up in some cold-water, coal-burning flat in an inner-city neighborhood. I’m not living your childhood and I don’t care about it.” Well, that’s telling me, I thought.

Teaching Linnet how to drive is, I firmly believe, one of the great accomplishments of my life as a parent, not because it was difficult, although it had its challenging moments, but because I learned a great deal about myself and about my daughter, as well. And even this Catcher in the Rye business turned out to be more useful than it seemed at first.

My wife had given Linnet her first driving lesson and came back entirely bemused and out of sorts. Linnet came in crying, marched upstairs and slammed the door to her room.

“I can’t teach that girl to drive,” my wife said. “She scares me too much behind a wheel. Why don’t you take her out? You’re much better at teaching than I am. Remember, you taught me how to drive. Besides, this is something a father should do with his daughter.”

My wife was exaggerating for effect and because she wanted to get out of something she found disagreeable. I did not really teach her how to drive. When we began dating, she owned a Nova, a new car at the time with an automatic transmission, and I was driving my mother’s Toyota, a somewhat less-than-new car with a standard transmission. She expressed an interest in wanting to learn how to drive a car with a standard transmission, so I taught her. As my wife is a very good driver, and she did, after all, already know how to drive, it was easy to teach her, and I think she was driving my mother’s car on the street in a matter of two or three days. For the first 10 years of our marriage, we owned nothing but standard transmission cars. And she thought I was the greatest teacher in the world because I was so relaxed and patient, was never the least concerned that she could not master the stick shift, was never upset when she made a mistake, and explained things thoroughly and clearly. This was all an act. I was terrified to my toenails the whole time, but I suspected that she thought that, as a man, I should exhibit a certain coolness.

The one prolonged teaching session I had with my mother was when she taught me to drive when I was eighteen. My mother had learned to drive only two years earlier and she seemed very keen that I should learn as well. I do not remember having much enthusiasm for it. To this day, I hate to drive. What compounded my situation was that my mother’s car had a manual transmission. The lessons were tense. My mother was extremely nervous and extremely angry, although I picked up driving with relative ease. She kept thinking I would strip the gears, run into something, or get run into, normal fears but in her case, pitched at high frequency.

This was all an act. I was terrified to my toenails the whole time, but I suspected that she [my wife] thought that, as a man, I should exhibit a certain coolness.

After three lessons, I could drive the car, a Volkswagen Beetle, fairly well. But I hated the lessons. Then, suddenly, one day, she decided to have a male friend continue the instruction. The change was dramatic. He was very laid-back, patient and had endless confidence, or pretended confidence, in my ability. The lessons were no longer an ordeal. I learned two things from this switch, which I think in part my mother did because she wanted me to receive instruction from a man. First, I decided I wanted very much to teach people things in the manner of a middle-aged black man, because I thought all middle-aged black men taught like my new driving instructor, and all of my life, I have associated good teaching with being middle-aged, black and a man. I wanted to be patient, assured, relaxed, with boundless confidence in my student and in my ability to teach him or her. Second, paradoxically, is that I missed my mother as an instructor. I thought there was something in this cross-gender moment of instruction that helped me understand what being a man was. Perhaps this is why my wife was able, very easily, to talk me into teaching my daughter how to drive. “Men are better teachers at mechanical things than women are,” my wife told me in an appeal to my ego. I don’t believe it. I am the most hapless man with mechanical contrivances that I know. But it meant something to my male ego to teach my daughter to drive, especially because my wife felt unable to do it.

I went upstairs and talked to Linnet.

“Didn’t go too well today, huh?” I asked.

“Daddy,” she turned to me with her tear-streaked face, “teach me how to drive. Mommy thinks I can’t do it. I know I can learn to drive if you teach me. I think you’re the best teacher in the world. Remember how you taught me to play checkers and Monopoly and stuff like that. You always explain stuff well and never get mad if I need to have it explained again. I think most of the stuff I remember you taught me.”

It is a terrible weight put on any parent to hear that suddenly and so sincerely from a child, as if the dreadful responsibility of child-rearing comes in such vivid relief at such a moment.

I have been a terrible parent, I thought. This kid can’t believe what she is saying. Immediately, it struck me that the last thing I wanted to do was teach my daughter to drive. I felt dizzy from the sheer immensity of it, as if, in some surreal moment, I was assigned to teach her the most important task a human being ever could be taught and feeling myself insufficient for the undertaking. After all, I secretly thought that perhaps because of a learning disability, Linnet couldn’t learn how to drive. I remember trying to dissuade her from getting her learner’s permit, telling her there was “no rush,” that she had plenty of time. “You don’t know how much time I have,” she responded angrily. “Driving isn’t everything,” I would tell her at other times. “It is to me,” she would answer. I felt like a fraud bearing a sickening guilt.

I decided I wanted very much to teach people things in the manner of a middle-aged black man, because I thought all middle-aged black men taught like my new driving instructor, and all of my life, I have associated good teaching with being middle-aged, black and a man.

“I’ll teach you how to drive,” I said.

We went out early every Sunday during early spring. We would drive around the huge empty parking lot on the Washington University campus in St. Louis for about an hour. Turn left. Turn right. Pull into a parking stall. Keep the car straight. Keep your eyes on the road. Check your rear-view mirror. The usual instructions. I was calm, collected, coolly explaining everything and giving her tips about various complications that could arise when she actually would drive in traffic, which I promised her week after week but always found some excuse not to fulfill. So, she wound up driving around the parking lot for far longer than most drivers-ed students. After a bit, she wanted to drive on the street, but she never became impatient about it, believing that her father knew best.

One very cold, very sunny Sunday, I decided to have her drive from one parking lot to another. This involved going up a winding, tricky stretch of road. I thought she could handle it. We went up without too much difficulty. But when we returned, matters became very dicey very quickly. Going down the winding road meant hugging a high brick wall that abutted the road. The car started going faster than Linnet could control, the nearness of the wall unnerved her and she couldn’t keep the car straight. She turned the steering wheel and it seemed we were going to hit the wall. Maybe she had better control of the car than I thought. Maybe she wasn’t going to hit the wall. Until that point, I had been against my inner urges, very cool, but when I thought she was going to hit the wall, I panicked and grabbed the wheel.

“Goddamnit,” I yelled, “you’re going to get us killed.”

I pushed her out of the way and guided the car down the road, virtually sitting on top of her. When we reached the bottom of the hill, I stopped the car.

“Look,” I said, a bit sheepishly, “I’m sorry about that, but it looked like you were about to….”

Her head was down. She was crying quietly.

“I wasn’t going to crash into the wall,” she said “You don’t think I can learn how to drive, do you? You never did. You think I’m too dumb to learn to drive, don’t you?”

“You don’t know how much time I have,” she responded angrily. “Driving isn’t everything,” I would tell her [my daughter] at other times. “It is to me,” she would answer. I felt like a fraud bearing a sickening guilt.

I was silent for a moment. I did not quite know what to say. I stammered something, but she wasn’t listening. She got out of the car and opened the door on the passenger side.

“I guess you better drive us home,” she said.

“Listen Linnet, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean….”

“Drive,” she yelled at me. I was so startled that I simply obeyed her and got behind the wheel.

I started the car, but I did not move it. I was trying to formulate something to say, an apology of some sort. I felt so exposed. She knew she had hit a nerve when she said I did not think she could learn to drive. But before I could say anything, she spoke to me in a quiet, choked voice, wiping her face with the heel of her hand.

This was becoming too painful. What goes on in the minds of children is something adults do not want to know about. I did not want to hear anymore.

“Do you know I got out of the Resource Room this year,” she said.

“Yes”, I said, “I know that. That’s very good for you.”

“Hardly any kid gets out of Resource,” she said, ignoring my interjection. “Once you get in special education, you stay there. And everybody thinks you’re dumb. Even the teachers think you’re dumb and they don’t help you. They just do the work for you. It’s awful to have everybody think you’re dumb. I wanted to get out of there so bad. I worked and worked and got out. I’m not dumb, and I was tired of people thinking I was dumb.”

“I never thought you were dumb, Linnet,” I said.

“You know, there are a lot of black kids in Resource. I didn’t want to be there because I thought everybody will think I’m dumb because I’m black.”

This was becoming too painful. What goes on in the minds of children is something adults do not want to know about. I did not want to hear anymore. What was I supposed to say, some trite, unconvincing thing about your great black ancestry, the wonders of Africa? People who think those recitations make a difference are afraid to plumb the awful and contradictory depths of the human soul. There was no escaping racial pride, in the end, as that was what motivated her to get out of the Resource Room. And there was no escaping race as a burden, a stigma, a form of shame. A black person is forever caught between a kind of heroism and simply being the nigger. I pressed the accelerator.

“We don’t have to go through this now, Linnet,” I said.

“It’s hard to go to school. A lot of the white kids are racist and can’t stand most of the black kids. And most of the blacks think you’re a sellout if you have white friends and they go around in some kind of clan. They think like their parents. All of them do. I don’t want to like something just to make the black kids happy, make them think I’m black. They say I act white, but I’m just trying to be myself. What is this being black? Hanging around complaining about white people all the time. Thinking about your color all the time and how different you’re supposed to be? Just being part of a clan? But a lot of white kids do dope, come from messed-up homes, and just act crazy. I don’t act like that. I sure don’t want to be white. I want to be myself. That’s why I wanted to learn to drive. To help me be myself,” she said.

I had driven a few blocks, but pulled the car over. I looked at my daughter for a moment and realized that God does indeed give only ironic gifts.

“You know something?” Linnet continued, “I kind of liked The Catcher in the Rye. I mean, some of it. But Holden Caufield was just too crazy. Sometimes I think he is right, though. I think sometimes everybody in the world is phony. I know I think the black kids and their blackness and the white kids and their whiteness are all phony. They just don’t know how to be themselves.”

I got out of the car and went around to the passenger side, opened the door and shoved her gently toward the driver’s seat.

“I don’t feel like driving,” I said.

“I don’t want to do this, Daddy,” she said. She was now completely in the driver’s seat.

“Then, I guess, we’re not getting home, because I’m not driving,” I said.

“I might mess up the car,” she said.

I’ll buy another one and take you out next week. There are plenty of car dealers around. Buying another car is easy. As Hemingway said, the world is ‘a good place to buy in.’ Go ahead and drive.”

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