virtual children by Scott Warnock

Driving lesson

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In August, the Inquirer ran a front-page story titled “A tearful ‘How could a father allow this?’” A man gave his 15-year-old daughter the keys to his SUV. She picked up some friends, lost control of the car, and three of the friends were killed. Families were destroyed and people’s lives were ruined. A mother of one of the dead children said to the man, “Your decision to be the ‘cool dad’ devastated our community.”

It’s a terrible story for everyone, and I don’t want to pile on in any way. I froze when I started reading it, because it made me think of a thing I did once.

Not long ago, I gave in to the incessant nagging of my teenage daughter about practicing driving. I adopted a laid back, “it’ll be fine” attitude: Aw, let’s go! But I didn’t take her to a deserted parking lot like any sensible person. Instead, I backed into the “lane” behind our house and put the car in neutral. She took over. This lane is a narrow, one-way alley that runs between the back yards of the homes in my neighborhood. Some garages are within two feet of the asphalt.

My wife and two neighbors saw this occurring and protested vigorously. I rebuffed them, cool guy that I am.

Fortunately, the driving lesson was brief: It lasted about three seconds and about 22 feet. Upon taking her foot off the brake, my daughter immediately panicked, turned the car hard to the right, and cruised into a free-standing basketball hoop, shoving it into our open, two-car garage. The car careened off the hoop’s pole and proceeded partially into the open garage before colliding with the inside of the thick garage door jamb. The jamb was pushed about eight inches, and I saw the whole garage wall shift. Then the car paused. I slammed it into park. I thought the whole garage might collapse onto the car.

In response I suppose to my wide-eyed look, my daughter grabbed her phone (of course!), opened the car door, and said with strange calm, “I’m outta here.” I jumped into the driver’s seat and quickly backed the car out. I got out and surveyed the damage. While we had moved the jamb, the garage was in no danger of collapsing. I looked at the car and saw the bumper was only slightly dented.

My daughter had scampered into the front yard. By coincidence, a friend of hers was driving by. She waved the friend down and they pulled off down the street.

I did what any reasonable, cool guy would do: I walked over to a plastic lawn chair, picked it up, and smashed it against the ground into a million pieces. I followed by bellowing a few stress-release curses.

I looked up and down the empty lane. Then I laid down on the ground in front of the garage and started to cry.

Maybe that part wasn’t cool. But I cried because I let my daughter down. I cried because I have a key job, and that is to put my kids in situations in which they’ll succeed, and I had failed.

Every day kids run across that lane. Little kids. If she had hit a little kid… If she had accelerated into a building or car… If she had hurt someone, or herself… She wasn’t ready to drive in our little, claustrophobic lane.

My phone rang. I wandered over and answered it, and it was my daughter. I told her to come home. She was reluctant: “I heard the cursing!” I said that the cursing and emotion were not directed at her. She was not the one at fault.

The damage was minimal. The car was fine. With the neighborhood crew and a come-a-long, we cranked the garage wall back into place. I took the metal garage door track into the basement, and using a vise, wrenched it back into shape. The door was fine.

Since then, I have told the story in a more or less lighthearted way — the tale of our failed driving lesson. I do that kind of thing, though, taking the rough story, smoothing it out, chuckling about it.

But often when I drive down our lane, I get a sick feeling, especially when I reach the end, where it’s overgrown and hard to see onto Fourth Street. I hope that feeling never goes away, because I want to remember the possible cost of idiocy.

The day after our driving lesson, I headed off to work. I reached the end of the lane. A woman with a baby stroller stepped right in front of me.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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5 Responses to “Driving lesson”

  1. Good post, Scott … thanks for sharing. I can’t help but think that more than a few of us can relate, can look back upon a similar time where we have ‘been there, done that.’ I am glad that in your case – unlike the case you cited at the beginning of your post – there were no tragic and irretrievable losses … except for that poor lawn chair.

  2. What kind of car is she getting? Paying all that tax money get the lazy asses in public works to cut that stuff down. Donald for Pope!!!

  3. My father didn’t give me any driving practice. He was a bureaucrat, working downtown in D.C., home too late at night to right shotgun. I took the driver’s ed. offered in my high school, then took the county driver’s license test, failed the parallel parking part, and my parents hired a professional tutor to drill me on parallel parking. I passed.

    To this day, whenever I see someone parallel parking, I stop and watch, especially if it’s a really close one. When the driver succeeds, esp. after a really close one, and steps out of the car onto the sidewalk, I burst into applause.

    Some things just stick with you.


  4. I always enjoy your Blogs..this one gave me a sick feeling in my stomach..good that you realize the error of your way..

  5. I was the cool Aunt 15 years ago. Taking my 15 year old niece driving on a dirt road at a shore camp resort. Thank God, nothing bad happened. I have learned a lot since then. It only takes a second for life to change as you know it. . I will always remember that a car is, at minimal, a several ton piece of machinery. Lives are at stake wherever you are, whoever is driving.
    I am not in a rush for my last one to get on the road. She is old enough to take the test, but I am not brave enough.
    Good post and one we as parents should remember.

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