Monday, August 25, 2008

As she hands over the car keys to son, they both become freer

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 25, 2008)

"When the brake lights go on in the car in front of you, prepare to stop."

"When you are entering a road and the sign says 'Yield,' slow down and wait until you can enter the road safely. You don't have the right of way -- no matter what everyone else is doing. When the sign says 'Yield,' you yield."

"Keep a good two to three car lengths between you and the car in front of you."

"Stay in the right lane. Only pass when necessary."

"Maintain the speed limit. If the sign says 35, go 35, not 50."

"Use your rearview mirrors. Get in the habit of checking them frequently."

"Drive defensively. Be on the lookout for potential problems and try to think ahead about how to solve them if they happen."

For the past 11 months, I've been spewing snippets of automotive wisdom while my teenage son steers the family minivan along Central Florida's highways and byways. As our family's designated driving instructor, my job has always been teaching our four children the ins and outs of automotive navigation. For the most part, it has been a pretty smooth ride.

The oldest three passed their tests -- maybe not always on the first try, but eventually -- and went on to become competent, careful drivers. Each has proved his and her mettle on everything from clay roads to rain-slick -- and snow-slick -- highways. Our oldest son even spent a few years as a professional driver, earning money for his vehicular skills as he crisscrossed the country.

It didn't matter which of our children was behind the wheel during their training periods -- certain situations always evoked moments of lip-biting fear. The claustrophobic sensation of being sandwiched between two 18-wheelers comes to mind, as does that first trip off two-lane roads onto multilane highways with cars whizzing by at 80 MPH.

Along with the expected insecurity and trepidation we also have experienced many moments of surprising pride and elation. The day a child realizes you can actually release one hand from the steering wheel without losing control of the car always evokes smiles of pleasure and amazement.

I tried -- quite often successfully -- to stay calm during the first few months when whichever child I was teaching took curves too tightly or didn't brake as soon as I thought he or she should when we came to a traffic light. I did my share of armrest clutching and sympathy braking -- ramming my right foot down on the floorboards with the deluded notion that it would help us stop sooner. And, yes, I occasionally yelled.

Saying "Watch it!" or "What are you doing?" may not have helped my kids learn faster, but it enabled me to release pent up tension that is part of the process of teaching someone a new skill.

These days a new tension has worked its way into my subconscious. When my youngest child receives his drivers license, I realize he won't be the only one embarking on a new stage of life. With the passing of the car keys, the gift of freedom and independence also will be mine. Because my daily schedule no longer will be dictated by another person's needs, it will be up to me to chart my own course. After almost 30 years of driving others around, my chauffeur's cap will be removed once and for all when my teenage son takes the car for his first solo ride.

It may take some time to adjust to new patterns but, like driving itself, the upcoming transition is both exciting and daunting. Like I've told my children during many driving lessons, "When you're behind the wheel, you're in charge of where you go and how you get there. When to stop. When to start. To speed up or slow down. You alone make these decisions, so act wisely and stay focused."

Those are lessons my son and I will both be practicing in the weeks and months to come.

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