“There are transitions in life whether we want them or not. You get older. You lose jobs and loves and people. The story of your life may change dramatically, tragically, or so quietly you don’t even notice. It’s never any fun, but it can’t be avoided. Sometimes you just have to walk into the cold dark water of the unfamiliar and suffer for a while. You have to go slow, breathe, don’t stop, get your head under, and then wait. And soon you get used to it. Soon the pain is gone and you have forgotten it because you are swimming, way out here where it’s hard and where you were scared to go, swimming sleekly thorough the new.” John Hodgman, Vacationland
The summer after I turned 15 I took driver’s ed. My English teacher taught the classroom portion. She was going through a divorce and we watched her drastically lose weight as the summer progressed; her Dolly Parton blonde bouffant atop a bright, round face became limp, frazzled curls tucked haphazardly around drawn cheeks and a grey complexion.
She was obviously stressed out, but attempting to be cheerful, as the problematic VCR spit out its tape over and over, unapologetically, for no apparent reason. Snap went the plastic trap door, as she shoved in the well-used cassette, the motor spinning little internal gears, and we would collectively hold our breath, ERrrvvvvv, Errrrvvvvv, and the tape would pop out again. Please just let it work, I thought to myself, and probably so thought the rest of the class. Please let the video play, so she can turn off the lights and sit at her desk at the back of the room and drink her styro-cup of lukewarm coffee from Jackson’s. We will watch patiently as the teen driver in the video does all the wrong things, and know they’re the wrong things because the narrator, an authoritative man with a radio voice will tell us so.
The teen driver will play his music loud as he careens down the street, non-seat-belted friends in tow, smoking probably, rolling through stop signs, neglecting to use his signal. Oh, look, train tracks ahead! The teen driver will attempt to beat the train, swerve around the flashing lights and striped barriers. These things always end with a train collision. The videos were dated, old cars, the kids looked nothing like me and my friends, bellbottoms!, and the message was patronizing and delivered without nuance. But watching that video in the cool dark of my English class was less jarring than watching the train wreck of my teacher’s life. I was ready and able to deal with the complexities and adult responsibilities of driving; I was not ready and able to deal with the complexities and adult responsibilities of a derailed relationship, teaching drivers ed in the summer to pay for a divorce and nervously drinking gas station coffee by the gallon to get through another day. Slap, ERrrvvvv, ERrrvvv, the FBI warning appears. I sigh and sink back in my chair.
I can’t remember the name of the guy that taught the actual driving portion of driver’s ed. The English teacher told us he’d been doing the job for 25 plus years. He was about 60 and to us he seemed old and crotchety; he had stale breath and wore tan polyester pants carelessly home-hemmed with contrasting thread. In these ways he was not unlike every old man teacher from our small town high school. He used his own car, a late 80s Civic, tan, with a rag rug over the back seat presumably to protect the upholstery from the prickly dog hair that covered the rug. There were four of us in the car that day, the old man, my best friend Mallory, me, and another student, a girl. I don’t remember her name either.
The old man followed the driver’s ed manual to the letter. We had to circle the car looking for impediments – soccer balls, parking barriers, toddlers – before we were allowed to get in. Mirrors were checked and set. Signals checked, Mallory standing at the rear of the car, the other girl at the front, while I pressed on the blinker lever from the passenger seat, first up, then down. “Now check the lights.” We checked the lights, put on the brights, tested the brakes, then the windshield wipers, the horn. When he finally let one of us get behind the wheel we were jumpy – how could we remember all these details when it came time to take the test? And we weren’t even driving yet.
“Ladies, I want you to practice this, because you never know when you’re going to be in a situation when some guy is coming after you and you’re in a big hurry and you need to get the keys in the ignition as fast as you can.”
Mal and I looked at each other. “When you get in the car I want you to lock the door with your elbow. Put the key in the ignition as fast as you can, simultaneously locking the door.”
This was for sure not in the manual. And it seemed like quirky advice, but whatever. We practiced running to the car, throwing open the drivers side door, slamming it shut and locking it with our elbow (this was when car locks were little stems at the top of the door, just under the window) while we put the key in the ignition slot and don’t forget your seatbelt!
“Now throw it in drive and I want you to step on the gas as hard as you can. We’re going to practice how long it takes you to slow down when you’re speeding.” He delivered his message with authority.
So in the parking lot of the high school we accelerated, accelerated and then jammed on the brakes. Over and over until we knew exactly how the Civic would respond. That was the end of day one.
Monday and Wednesday we went to the classroom with our English teacher, we watched videos and studied the manual. We took quizzes about road rules and car parts and learned that you should never drive when you’re tired, or drunk, or distracted from a fight with your boyfriend (this was pre-car phone and pre-cell phone and therefore, pre-texting). Most certainly if you do any of these things, you will die, or worse, you’ll kill someone else and you’ll survive and then you’ll have to live for the rest of your life knowing you killed someone because you’re an inattentive driver. Also, we learned that divorce is hard and it will suck the life force out of you and in a few short months you’ll be a mere shell of your former married, bubbly self.
Tuesday and Thursday we drove the Civic with the old man. Mostly we practiced four way stops and changing lanes on the freeway and of course, parallel parking. Also, we learned things that seemed peculiar, and probably wrong, like, in a cul-de-sac, you must first put on your right blinker, and then as you get to the middle of the circle, you put on your left blinker. When backing out of a driveway, honk twice, so those behind you know you’re coming. He put on the music really, really loud, so we could practice driving with the radio on. “Kids always listen to music too loud while they are driving. You might as well know what it’s like with a professional next to you.” He always delivered the information, wacky or not, in the same authoritarian tone. He demanded respect. This was not fun and games.
I should probably mention at this point in the story that Mal and I had been best friends for years. We had bonded over a similar disposition, we were sly, cynical, and witty. We were sassy: Mal had a wicked sense of humor and I, a biting tongue. We were both in advanced classes, got good grades, and spent most class time passing notes that skewered our sad-sack teachers and whomever else we felt deserved our absolutely hilarious criticism.
We thought the old man was kind of an idiot. He took himself and his job so seriously. He made shit up and then acted like it was crucial information that would be the deciding factor in whether we were good driving citizens or bad. Mostly, because aren’t all teachers kind of like this we thought, we went along with it. We did our eye-rolling behind his back. Until one day, when we didn’t.
I was driving. The old man was grousing in a low tone next to me; I’d done something wrong and he didn’t think I was sufficiently concerned. I protested, and he reprimanded me for being “flip.”
“Pull over. It’s Mal’s turn.” He made a note in my driving record, a photocopy clipped to a clip board, and gave me a D for the day. A D?! I was incensed. “Lame.” I retorted.
“Mal, get in the driver’s seat.” He repeated. When she did, she neglected to lock the door with her elbow and shrugged when he mentioned it. They had another exchange and then all of a sudden he started shouting. His face got red, and the white spittle collected at the corners of his mouth, and he yelled and yelled and yelled. I couldn’t tell you the specifics of what he was yelling. I was paralyzed in the back seat of the car as I watched him swivel his head between the two of our faces. “How dare you,” was the gist of it, “you are little shits!”
He was getting closer and closer to Mal’s face as he yelled, pointing his thick finger in rhythm with his shouts. I could see the spittle, like the lather on a race horse, get thicker and creep up his wrinkly lips.
“Get out of the car, Mal.” I said. “Get out of the car, NOW!” She got out, and so did he and I, and the other girl. He was still furiously screaming as we walked quickly away from him in direction of the school. “You’ll never drive in this town again!” he shrieked.
By the time we arrived back at the school, ten blocks or so, Mal and I had mostly stopped shaking. The other girl was no longer crying. We went straight to the English teacher and told her the story. You could tell it was the last thing she wanted to deal with, three traumatized teen girls with a story that was likely a hormone-driven over-dramatization. She sent us to the principal.
The principal was a little more sympathetic. He, too, was an older man, and he’d probably seen it all, being the principal of a high school for years and years. Plus, he didn’t know us individually, so he took our complaint at face value, instead of assuming, these are button pushing girls, they must have really been harassing that old man, for him to respond so badly. That is how we felt when we told the English teacher, she thought it was our fault, very likely.
“Thank you for coming to me,” he said, “I will make sure to have a word with your driving teacher. It’s probably best that you switch cars and have a different instructor from now on.”
Nobody told us, but somehow we found out, that a supervisor had gone on a “ride-along” with another of the old man’s groups. There had been a complaint earlier in the week about some of the material he was teaching being “questionable.” And, also, there was some concern about his temper.
The old man was “let go,” or he quit, and when the English teacher told us this, she insisted this was a very sad development. An end of an era, really, an old man who had been doing a very good job for many, many years, had to leave that job when questions about his ability arose. She, for one, was not convinced of our innocence, but took over as our driving instructor anyway, probably because there was no one else they could get at that late notice. Despite our protests, and proof that we were, in fact, good drivers, the English teacher would not change the grades the old man had put on our daily driving records. “He must have given you those grades for a reason. He’s been a driving instructor for over 25 years,” she said.
The old man had threatened us, “you’ll never drive in this town, again!” and he was almost right. When averaged together with our new driving record grades, and our tests and pop quizzes from the class, we both barely passed drivers ed.
A few months later we found out the old man was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. “We thought you girls should know,” said the principal. “Alzheimer’s affects the memory, and probably your instructor was forgetting what he knew and was confused when he was teaching, you can imagine that might make a person scared and angry.”
I started this essay with a quote from John Hodgman about growing older and how changes in our lives are similar to swimming off the coast of Maine where the water is cold. It reminded me of the time I got caught in a riptide off the coast of Oregon. It was a beautiful day, a clear blue sky stretching cloudless above the weird green grey haze hanging low over the ocean. The water was not particularly cold but I was wearing yoga tights and a quick-dry sweatshirt for swimming anyway, because nobody I ever knew wore a swimsuit in the Pacific off the coast of Oregon over Labor Day weekend! We had been boogie boarding with some cheap Styrofoam kick boards and rowing our inflatable kayak in and out of the waves, never thinking of tides, but only about the sand between our toes and the rush of water on our backs as we dove up and down. My boyfriend at the time grabbed a life vest and swam out to where he was just a tiny floating head on the horizon. I watched his strong arms pump in and out of the water. And then he seemed to just stop. Like he was treading water. He was doing this for about 15 minutes when I started to get worried. Was he getting smaller? Was it getting foggier? How come he didn’t come back in? I waved and he waved back. A few more minutes went by and he still didn’t come back. He just sort of bobbed there in the distance. “I’m going to go see what Rocco is doing,” I said to my sister. We were sitting in the sand on the shore watching the boys hop waves with their boards. I grabbed a board and paddled out. As I got closer he yelled, “Go back! You’ll get stuck! It’s a riptide!” But I was already too far out and when I tried to swim back to shore, the tide just pulled me further and further out. Soon I was as far out as him. We tried to swim back, and several times we got close enough that I could feel the sand under my feet, but each time a wave would sweep us back, and my feet would fall off that shelf of sand into the abyss. Rocco had the lifejacket so he was buoyed up, but my paddleboard provided little support. It was panic inducing. We tried to wave, but those on the beach just waved back. My arms were getting tired. I had to kick my legs harder and harder to keep my head above water. Several times a wave crashed over me and my head was submerged. We had been out there a long time. We yelled HELP but knew the water and the wind would send our cries the wrong way, further into the people-less ocean.
Finally, after many, many minutes, they got concerned enough on the shore to send a kayak to investigate. My brother-in-law and sister paddled leisurely until they saw our panicked faces and then plowed towards us. “Help, help, help!” I kept screaming.
Now I know this may be a very clichéd and obvious analogy, but getting stuck in riptide is similar to how I felt when I was in driver’s ed: out of control, unable to affect an outcome through my own efforts, worried about the consequences of my actions in a bad situation made worse by a relentless, unyielding foe. Obviously, getting stuck in a riptide and dying is way worse than failing driver’s ed, but I already told you this wasn’t a perfect metaphor. Anyway.
I thought of my driver’s ed experience the other day when I had a similar encounter. An older man, an authority figure, totally lost it, yelling, spitting vitriol at me, about me, to my face, with his finger pointed etc. etc. It was simultaneously terrifying and theatrically absurd. And, too, this year has seemed full of these incidents, where I’m trying very hard to keep my self together when the other party is completely irrational and unreasonable, and I am suffering consequences for their actions. My feet can’t find the sand. I can’t move forward.
The summer after I turned 15 I learned to drive. More importantly, I learned this life lesson: sometimes, for one reason or another, reasons likely having nothing to do with you, people will try to hurt you. There will be real life consequences that you will suffer through no fault of your own, or your punishment will far exceed your crime. Others will pile on, because that person is usually an authority figure, almost always a man, insisting if you had done something different, been someone different, used a different tone, this wouldn’t have happened to you. You will assume there are rules, or laws, or people that will, should, protect you, but come to find out there are not those protections. And, there may be consequences for whoever is perpetrating the behavior against you, but more likely, there will not.
These days I keep my head above water by reminding myself that at end of the story I got my license. I spent hours and hours driving my parent’s old car faster than I should around turns, barely stopping at stop signs, listening to Tom Petty really loud. I never locked the door with my elbow. I did, however, always stop for trains.