gearshiftOne of the most romantic images in American culture is someone speeding off into the sunset in a convertible. Freedom. In our car culture, getting your drivers’ license is a rite of passage. Driving gives you the ability to go somewhere – fast – without your parents. But when you’re the parent, it’s the last thing you want.

As our kids approached 16, I harbored the vain hope that they may not need to drive because public transit is so practical in Chicago. But they were not to be denied. However limited their access would be to our one car, however terrifying Chicago traffic could be, they were determined to learn. They took drivers’ education – both classroom meetings and road experience, but then they had to start all over again, because we have a car with a stick shift. In order to pass a driving test, they’d have to do it in our car.

We spent countless Sundays doing laps around the emptiest parking lot I could find in Chicago, learning how to shift gears and not kill the engine, then trying to do it without hopping. Practicing parking, backing up, and not hitting anything. Then we crept out on the road where they had to get used to taking off from a green light in the correct gear (see “killing the engine”), remembering to signal, and anticipating what other cars, pedestrians and bikers are going to do. Chicago is pretty flat, so it took a while to find the road feature that most stick drivers fear: a stop on an incline. You’re at the light, a car is behind you and you have to smoothly accelerate while not rolling backward. An agonizing moment for both driver and teacher.

I realize that I made driving look altogether too easy over the years. While the kids were in the back seat looking out the windows, they had no idea how many decisions I was making; how I had to consider physics, psychology and navigation on a simple trip to the store. So part of my teaching approach was to speak all of my driving thoughts out loud to illustrate for my kids what they needed to be thinking, looking at, seeing, and doing at all times. I’d annotate while I was driving -“I”m depressing the clutch and touching the accelerator lightly”, “I’m seeing that man step off the curb even though it’s not his turn, but I’m letting him cross”. It’s possible my kids still hear my voice when they’re merging into traffic, or completing a parallel parking maneuver.

Our daughter just reached a new milestone – she bought her own car. It’s used and has a manual transmission, a lot of miles, and a working radio. Before she headed to camp this morning, she rolled down the window and waved. Thoughts of her in a child’s car seat flash though my mind, but she puts it in first gear, and away she goes.


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