Day By Day: Let’s leave the driving to themEver since the subject of driver’s education came up at last week’s school board meeting, my own “learning to drive” experience has been on my mind. It isn’t a pretty thought.
By: Meg Heaton, Hudson Star-Observer
Ever since the subject of driver’s education came up at last week’s school board meeting, my own “learning to drive” experience has been on my mind. It isn’t a pretty thought. I like to think that if I had the HHS’s even-tempered, nerves of steel driving teacher Bob Branson things might have been different but I don’t think so.
The truth is I didn’t learn to drive until I was 21 back in 1973. It was embarrassing not being able to drive to your own consciousness-raising group or an ERA rally or even your own job. It always surprised people. How could anyone not know how to drive in 1973?
People were always surprised that I didn’t learn to drive long before it was legal, growing up on a farm and all. It was assumed that we all learned to drive tractors before we could walk or at least by age 12. The truth is my dad was kind of traditional and he didn’t want his three daughters doing farm work. It helped that he had five sons but it was also a point of pride I think, that his girls didn’t do “barn work” like a lot of my cousins.
The truth is I was kind of relieved. Unlike almost everybody else around me, I was afraid of driving, especially something as big and expensive as a tractor. Ours broke down a lot and I just knew it would be worse with me at the wheel.
Mom and Dad used to let my brothers drive to the end of the road and back and Dad offered me a try but I declined. I firmly believed that it wouldn’t be right to crash the family’s one car on the way to church. The consequences could be dire.
The pressure was off when I went to boarding school. They didn’t offer driver’s education there but almost everybody took it over the summer from a driving school. When asked why I wasn’t taking driver’s training over the summer, I said I was too busy and had to work and it was too expensive — anything but the truth — fear of me in a car by myself.
There were plenty of examples of why my fear, or at least hesitation was warranted. I’m sure a lot of nuns are good drivers but our principal Sr. Mary Dunn wasn’t one of them, although she thought she was. There were plenty of close calls riding with her. My most vivid memory was of a trip in the nine-passenger station wagon to a forensic tournament. She turned the wrong way down a one-way street in Chippewa Falls, and we all wondered if being killed in crash with a nun would make it easier to get to heaven.
Sr. Mary didn’t skip a beat. When a car driving in the right direction started to honk at her, she just honked back and used the equivalent of a nun swearing. “What is that dame all up about? Take note girls, some people just don’t like to see a nun drive.”
I got through high school without a driver’s license and my first year of college. When I got married at 19, I also got a driver in the deal and I was content with that for awhile. Kevin tried to convince me to let him teach me to drive. I wasn’t that much in love. While driving around Milwaukee and environs with him, I had learned anatomical references I’d never even known existed applied to almost everyone else on the road.
I only got one driving lesson from my husband and it very nearly ended with me taking out a very beautiful tree on a neighbor’s lawn along with a corner of their porch. We both decided I needed a professional.
I took driver’s training at a technical school in Eau Claire along with some young women like me, some widows who had lost their driver and some teens who just had a look about them that said high school wasn’t for them. I wasn’t any more comfortable with the idea of driving — I just was old enough to know it was inevitable.
The morning of my road test it was pouring rain. I was so nervous that we had travelled a block and a half before the test guy wondered if I wouldn’t like to turn on the wipers. He passed me but it was months before I began to feel even remotely comfortable behind the wheel.
Over the years I’ve had three minor accidents, one my fault, one somebody else’s and one I can’t remember what happened. I have done stupid things over the years like close my eyes when it’s foggy and take my hands off the wheel when I hit a patch of ice. The only really good habit I have when I drive is a new one — I won’t talk on the phone when I drive. I can’t walk and chew gum either.
I didn’t think much about driving until about five years ago when the kids signed up for driver’s ed. at HHS. I really thought the school should invest in some simulators of some kind before they put kids like mine on the road. And, OK so there’s this very calm, cool instructor sitting next to them, somehow finding a way to communicate his concerns in a normal tone of voice and without the benefit of any body armor or an ejector seat.
And he’s had all this experience with kids like mine. What was I supposed to do when they were all the time bugging me to let them drive, practice when they couldn’t be trusted to signal a turn on their bikes. I went through it all – hanging white-knuckled onto the door handle, hand hovering over the shift, pressing so hard on the floorboard that my knee froze up.
I decided to seek professional help. Mr. Branson very nicely gave me the impression he had heard it all before and assured me I would survive Kate and Cory getting their licenses. He didn’t really have any secrets to share but did advise me to resist the urge to grab the wheel. “That could be bad, Meg.”
His 17 years of experience paid off for my kids and for me. We all did, indeed, survive learning to drive. The few mishaps so far have been minor and related to things like not hearing the crunch of metal while backing out of the garage because Usher was playing too loudly. And the fact that there is another alternative to getting out of a very tight parking space which doesn’t involve “bumping” the other vehicle out of the way.
I will be sorry to see driver’s education dropped from the curriculum at HHS. I’m sure kids can get it from other sources but I think there is a real advantage to having it taught like all their other classes and by someone who knows how they think. I wasn’t sure what the consequences would be when I learned to drive. My kids had a much better idea of all that because of the education they got and the way they got it.