nicholas hopkins

Teen Driver

There was a time when I thought driving through rush hour Atlanta traffic during a thundering rainstorm, with 3 screaming children was nerve wracking.  Ha.  I've come to realize that was peanuts; a walk in the park.  Since then I've experienced the ultimate in auto related stress: Teaching a teenager to drive.  Alex, my oldest son is now 15 years old (going on 37).  When he asked me to give him driving lessons I took a deep breath, swallowed and said as calmly as possible "Sure... not a problem."  In the process of giving those lessons I've come to realize several very important facts.  It's possible to make up a wide variety of very sincere prayers on very short notice and in very quick succession; it takes several hours for my heartbeat to recover from a state of sheer panic and there are some key phrases that you never, ever want to hear your teenager say, while driving. 

The first few sessions were relatively uneventful as we cruised through huge abandoned parking lots, he was just getting used to being behind the wheel.  Then the real fun started when we moved out onto the roadway.  One day I let him try his hand at neighborhood driving while going through some semi-rural back streets in central Brevard.  Out the window, I could see mailboxes and trashcans whizzing by dangerously close to the passenger side of the vehicle.  I wondered to myself whether they always appear this close from the passenger side when the car suddenly veered to avoid a mailbox that had apparently leaped out in front of us.  In the window reflection I could see my eyes and mouth form the same O shape as Alex whipped the steering wheel to avoid the obstacle.  About the same time that he was saving this obviously reckless mailbox from premeditated self-destruction, I saw that a very large green pickup truck coming in the opposite direction had barely managed to avoid us. 

With my heart beat still pounding in my ears, we cruised quietly through an industrial complex that had closed for the day.  Without any traffic, the lesson returned to a relatively calm cruise.  After a few minutes I decided this was a great opportunity to practice parking and making three-point turns.  The parking was relatively uneventful, however during one of the three-point turn attempts I heard the first of those phrases that you never, under any circumstances want to hear as passenger in a teen driven vehicle:  "Oops, wrong pedal."

You know how you can sometimes take a sudden deep breath when confronted with a shock?  (Sort of the same thing that happens when someone flushes while you're in the shower.)  At the sound of those words, I think I broke the seals on my windshield and my son later complained that his ears had popped at the sudden change in air pressure inside the car.  He accidentally hit the gas instead of the brake, while backing up for his three-point turn.  He caught his error quickly and we probably didn't come as close to the window of the warehouse front office as I imagined but at the time, my all-too-brief-life flashed before my eyes and someday soon, I'll have to see if I can get my fingernail remnants out of the dashboard. 

A few minutes later as we were heading in from the "lesson" I figured we were almost home, it would be smooth sailing for the last few miles.  How naïve.  We approached a red traffic signal at a relatively large and busy local intersection and while my son did look in all directions and slowed considerably, he never came to a complete stop as he rolled on through a sweeping right turn.  Making a mental note to talk with him about staying in his lane all the way through a turn, I asked him through tightly clenched teeth "Didn't you see that traffic light?!"  He calmly responded with the second of the two phrases you never want to hear:  "Oh... was that light red?"  As we finally pulled into the driveway, a three-Tylenol beauty of a headache was just beginning to bloom in the back of my head.

Since then, the lessons have gotten easier.  I'm not sure if it's because he's gotten better, or because I've become desensitized to extreme panic, but at least the headaches have stopped.  Of course now that he knows how it affects me, he has begun to say things just to torment me.  The other day, as we were coming to a stop sign, he said "Now, the brake is the one on the left, right?"  With a cocky smile, he asked, "What's the matter, Dad?  Nervous?"  I was suddenly reminded of a phrase my mother had said to me on many occasions.  With a new appreciation for its meaning, I told my son, "Just wait 'till you have kids of your own someday."


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