Editorial: Jamie Beckett on Teaching a Teenager to Drive

Apropos of Nothing: Teaching a Teenager to Drive
An Editorial by Jamie Beckett

Pity me. I am currently battling my way through one of the more profound life experiences known to modern man. Consequently, I look a bit haggard. Occasionally I awake with a start, soaked in sweat,  mumbling incoherently. If it’s possible, I think I’m actually slightly balder than I was a month ago, too. Yes, I’m teaching a teenager to drive. Worse yet, the object of my efforts is a teenage girl who is reevaluating my place in the pantheon of great Americans since we’ve started this adventure.

I fear I’m not going to come out of this with high marks.

Teaching a teenager to drive is nothing new. In fact there is a considerable amount of historical precedent for this sort of thing.

Horace Bushnell, Sr., was the very first driver who took it upon himself to teach his own child to drive. His student, Horace Bushnell, Jr., was described as a capable student with a bright future. And so it was no surprise to friends or family when Horace Jr. eventually went on to become an executive level officer at a major insurance company based in Hartford, Connecticut. That does not discount the significant surprise experienced by Horace Sr. however, when he successfully hand cranked the engine of his 1910 Corbin Touring automobile, only to find Horace Jr. clunk the machine into gear, hit the gas, and drive directly over dear old dad.

Newspaper archives suggest the funeral was lovely.

In my case the car we’re driving sports all the modern conveniences, including electric starting. So odds are good I will not be driven over by my own progeny.

Part of the reason for the elevated stress levels induced by this teaching/learning experiencing is the fact that every car I have available to teach in has a manual transmission. Hence, my young student has come to hate the clutch.

She’s not alone, either. I once dropped my car off at a full service car wash. This was the kind of place where an attendant is supposed to take over, drive the car into the service bay, work with a team of highly professional automotive cleansing technicians, and return to the customer a gleaming, barely recognizable example of mechanical perfection. Except in my case. The attendant smiled, accepted my keys, bounded off to the car, slid into the driver’s seat, closed the door, and bounded out again with a level of energy reserved for people who are being chased by a pack of large carnivores. “Your car’s a standard, man,” he announced as if he had just discovered a vaccine to prevent stupidity. “Nobody here can drive that thing.”

Yes, my car is a bit dirty these days. Thank you for asking.

I’ve taught quite a few people to fly airplanes over the course of my life, so you would think teaching an intelligent, motivated young person to drive a small Japanese car down a flat paved road would be relatively simple by comparison. You would think so. But you would be wrong.

Teaching someone to fly is easier. You see, airplanes almost never hit mailboxes mounted on poles beside the street, small children on bicycles, extraordinarily thin teenage boys spinning erratically on skateboards, or curious dogs that appear to be drawn by mysterious forces into our path where they sniff the pavement for longer than would seem wise, or necessary.

So far we have covered the basics. She knows how to check and adjust the mirrors. She’s a wizard at setting the seat into a comfortable position. Her ability to start the car, release the emergency brake, put the shift into first gear and release the clutch is unparalleled. And that’s right about where the trouble starts.

Anyone who has taught another person to drive a standard transmission car knows that the first few seconds of those early driving opportunities resembles nothing so closely as a bull rider at the rodeo. Eight seconds is eight seconds, I say. If you survive that the rest is downhill from there. Literally in this case. I don’t even want to think about teaching her to start from being stopped on an uphill incline.

Next week, I’m going to tell her about second gear. Wish me luck.