Getting Your License, Learning to Drive

by Samantha Pauli,, December 2, 2010

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When you turn sixteen and your parents drive you to the DMV your heart flutters like a tiny hummingbird were flitting about inside your chest, fighting to burst free. Your hands are clammy and you're running through facts in your head, fighting to remember your manual, as apprehension fights a boxing match with anticipation and the car gets closer and closer. By the time you are parking outside the office you are on the edge of losing your birthday breakfast, your stomach knotted and churning with expectation. You wonder how intense the questions will be, briefly having to struggle to remember what a stop light means in your panic, and your fingers fumble with the lever and finally opens the door as you feel your feet touch pavement.

By the time you've finished the insignificant, ten question quiz and discovered you have only failed one answer you are ushered off to have your picture taken. They hand you your paper license which you tuck securely in to your wallet. Now the real work begins. You have to learn to maneuver a vehicle ten times your size without driving off the road or hitting anyone. Incidentally, you do almost drive off the road on the way home when your mother pulls over at the end of your road to let you drive, because you are unaccustomed to the weight of the steering wheel and the pressure that is required to move it. You are immediately commanded to stop the vehicle and get back in the passenger seat. Your mother's voice insinuates that she has been having a minor heart attack while you were behind the wheel. She promises instead that you will go to the middle school parking lot to practice the next day.

It will be a long and difficult journey to get to the license.

But after six months of learning, and only one failed attempt, because your bitch of an instructor wouldn't give you a second chance at parallel parking- which you've done perfectly at least one hundred times- you finally get your license. The real deal, not some learner's permit. It's the document that gives you ultimate freedom. The ability to tell your parents you'll be home at midnight, get into that driver's seat, and take off to wherever you see fit. You can go to your best friend's house, the mall, the movies, work. You can go wherever you could possibly get to, as long as you can afford the gas to do it. But then there are your insufferable parents, forever telling you to be careful and, even after all the driving you've done, never thinking you are smart enough or responsible enough to get behind the wheel alone without screwing something up. You don't understand why they don't seem to trust you. At sixteen you cannot fully comprehend their reasoning, thinking that you are an impeccable driver and that you have acquired all of the experience necessary to be an expert at your newly discovered talent, instead of a novice.

Teenagers, for all that their brains are supposed to be developed and have full thinking abilities, fail to realize that they do not know everything. And, what's more, they fail to comprehend that it is possible for things to happen to them. They are not perfect, they are not invincible. Bad things can happen, and they do happen. It is not our job to say why they happen, only to know that it is a possible. Instead of thinking that your parents are overbearing and troublesome, put yourself in their position. Think about how they brought you in to this world and they don't want to see you leave it, especially not before them. At sixteen you have so much life ahead and they can't wait to live vicariously through you. The problem is not that your parents are over-protective, but that you aren't cautious enough.

We all have our weaknesses. When I became a licensed driver I felt as if something was wrong. When I got in the car and my mother or father was not seated beside me I felt like I was doing something I was not supposed to do. I felt the same way when I turned 21 and I made my first legal purchase of alcohol and brought it back to my room. I felt like I was doing something illegal and I had been conditioned for so long to hide illegal activity I felt that by having it in my room I was doing something that was incorrect.

But you learn eventually to disregard it. I'm perfectly fine after three weeks of being 21, just as I quickly got over being the only person in a moving vehicle. I relished the freedom. Not that I had some amazing car to drive. What parent would buy their child a new or even an incredibly nice car when they first start driving? I drove the old tan, 1994 Cherokee. I really did love that car, for all that it was old and noisy (it really needed a new muffler) and I once got pulled over for illegally tinted windows, for which I wanted to smart mouth the cop and ask him how he could pull me over for that when the car was made in 1994 and they clearly were not illegal then. Not to mention at that point it was my father's...not mine.

It was a good car. You could leave that thing parked in the driveway all winter and when you started it up in the spring it would roar to life as if it had not been hibernating in the bitter cold for months and it still continued to run like a dream. There was no air conditioning, but that's what rolling down your windows is for and really, as long as the heat worked, I was fine.

I'm glad my lesson wasn't learned in my Cherokee. I would have hated myself. Then again, things might have gone differently in the Cherokee.

My second vehicle my father actually bought for me. It was a Stratus, only $800, and perfect for a beginning driver. My father justified buying it for me because the Cherokee was old, loud, and, really, for $800 the car he was buying me was an absolute steal. And, at the time, he had the money to get it. So I had my first real car.

A car that was actually mine.

Well, at least in spirit. It was still in my father's name since he bought it and he paid for the insurance.

But this is also the vehicle which gave me the most trouble. A flat tire, a busted internal computer which needed to be replaced because it messed up my transmission and another problem which led to me learning my greatest lesson on the road.

When it happened I hadn't even been sure of what had happened, until much later, when I went through it all in my head. I recall listening to Colbie Callait on the stereo as I turned the bend at the street light before heading down our main road toward the high school. I was on my way to my Math B regents and I had left with plenty of time to park and find my seat. It was warm and I had the windows down. Summer was coming and it was perfect outside. I remember driving past the subway, and then a little farther. There was a car in front of me, maybe one or two car lengths in front of me, plenty of room I thought. I saw something to my right, like it was coming toward my car and I turned quickly to look. A person had moved close to the car, scaring me briefly, thinking someone had been about to run out in front of me. I had slowed up a bit and quickly returned my eyes to the road. The volunteer fire station was ahead to my right and the car in front of me had stopped there, rear lights on with its blinker flashing to the left. I touched the brake, easing in to a stop.

But it didn't stop.

I pushed a little harder, but the needle still read 20. The pounding started in my chest and spread to my ears, blocking out everything else and my foot slammed down on the break, the pounding getting louder until I felt like my heart had migrated through my chest up into my head. I heard rubber screech on pavement, felt my car shudder as it tried to halt and I braced myself against the steering wheel, forgetting the emergency break in my absolute panic.

The scrunch of metal, pressure against my chest, and suddenly my vision was black.

A second, if that.

That's the amount of time the blackness lasted and I was in my car again, hearing the coughing as the smoke surrounded me, both white and dark. My coughing, I realized a little later. Sounds came back to me and I noticed that I had enough room to pull my vehicle out of the road and in to the fire station's parking lot. Not that I could see well because the hood of my car was scrunched up quite substantially to block my view. The police were already arriving when I stumbled from my car. The other car had a dent in the bumper, and the woman was blaming me. But I guess I cannot blame her. She had no way of knowing that my brakes had failed. I hadn't even known that my brake fluid had been leaking.

Shock. Pure shock.

I couldn't even think logically about what had happened. I couldn't even put into words or thoughts what had even happened prior to that moment when I got out of my car. I had to be taken to the school for my test in a cop car, with a burn on my arm from where the air bag had singed me, which I desperately tried to hide. I did not want any questions. And remarkably I managed to pass that test with a 73. You might be thinking that to be a poor grade, but when you are bad at math and are aiming for a 65 and have just been in an accident that's a pretty impressive grade.

But, I definitely did learn something that day. Don't follow too closely, don't think you know everything, things can and will happen to you whether you think they will or not, and, one of the most important lessons of all:

None of us are invincible and none of us are immune.

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