My daughter will be sixteen years old this summer. At lunch the talk turns to which of her friends has a driver’s license. Truth is, I bring it up. I bring it up because we’re talking about which courses my daughter will take next fall and I assume it will include Driver’s Education. I’m surprised when my husband isn’t as eager as I am for her to begin the process. Outside our window it’s snowing hard–a snow storm actually– and school has been cancelled since early this morning. We’re arguing now and I insist, even if she doesn’t think she needs it, that Driver’s Ed is important for 11th grade. I’m digging in and I can feel my face flush. My husband says, “No rush. Talking about it. That’s all I’m saying.” I know I’m sounding alarmed, am more than alarmed. My daughter will learn to drive as soon as possible. Why not? Just then, my friend phones. I leave the table. She’s on the road in the storm. There’s a juggernaut on a highway and a car on fire. She says, “We’re stuck here behind a huge truck, a burning car next to it, I just saw the driver run out. We’re all in range if it explodes.” I tell her to walk away. Even if she can’t drive her car, walk away from the danger. She says she thinks of me, how calm I was when we slid down a snowy street in Yonkers. “You didn’t panic,” she says. “I couldn’t believe you didn’t panic. I wanted to tell you, I’m channeling your calm. Trying to be calm.”
Being the mother of teenage girls brings a weather system of strong emotions with it, if you didn’t already know this. Maybe you did. But me? Not me. I didn’t know what I was in for. I thought once the toddler years were behind us, we would coast through the rest. Nor did I imagine that the teenage version of myself would hover as closely as she does through this part of my life as my children grow. There’s the dress I wore once that my daughter wore last week to a party and the earrings I let her borrow. I’d offered it with nostalgia before we looked for new dresses at the mall. But in the end, it was my dress she liked best to my surprise and, I have to admit, looked best on her. All she needed was the hem to be taken up. The dry cleaner woman who did the alterations looked at me skeptically. “Your dress?” she asked. “I can’t believe it.”
This is probably relevant: I wasn’t allowed to have a bicycle when I was a child. My father believed that girls shouldn’t ride bicycles. My two brothers and a cousin, who was the same age as my younger brother and lived with us, were given vehicles to ride at every age— tricycles at first, then bikes with training wheels, and finally full size two-wheelers. I borrowed my cousin’s two-wheel green aluminum-framed bike when I was eight years old and was falling down, getting up, falling back down on a patch of concrete that was our yard in Providence, Rhode Island. I figured out how to ride eventually. I didn’t know that trying to ride in a circle was the hardest way to learn.
This is probably relevant: I wasn’t allowed to have a bicycle when I was a child. My father believed that girls shouldn’t ride bicycles.
As with bicycles, cars were not seen as necessary for me. My father fussed over his boys driving even before they were old enough to drive, but ignored me. We spent a lot of time in the car when I was a child. One of the things my parents couldn’t get over: how you can drive for days across the continental United States. My father would sit my younger brother in his lap and let him steer in between offering math and science problems for us to solve in our heads. When I became old enough, I didn’t know how I would learn to drive. But then two people stepped in.
We were living in Jamestown, New York, at that point. My older brother happened to be home from college for his winter break. He picked me up from school along with my mother on my sixteenth birthday which was in January, took me to the Division of Motor Vehicles to take the written test for my permit. When I waved my permit in front of the windshield an hour later, he got out of the driver’s seat and insisted I drive us home. I balked, but he didn’t let up. Clenching the steering wheel of a mammoth station wagon, I remember thinking that driving was exhausting. I remember thinking there was too much to learn all at once. I remember holding my breath as we squeezed past a cluster of cars. I remember the sense of disbelief when I drove us home without incident. I felt as if I’d been lucky but might not be again. At the end of the month, my brother went back to college. I signed up for a driving class at school.
Driver’s Education at my high school in our small industrial city was taught by Mrs. Gilson, a loud woman with a brown cap of wavy hair who wore blue suits and ruffled blouses. She had on plastic squarish glasses that took up half her face and were the fashion of the day, some adding stickers of tiny ornate initials in the corners of the large frames. Three students and I squished into a gray Dodge sedan with her once a week. I was the one who volunteered to back the student driver car out of the parking lot. A small grace for someone who had severe motion sickness and couldn’t sit backwards in a moving car, train, boat, or plane. Somehow I had a talent for driving in reverse.
We took turns at the wheel. Mrs. Gilson directed us to hilly streets in remote parts of our small city. The best part of the class was being able to leave the high school in the middle of the day. I remember one March, because it would snow from Halloween to Easter, a layer of frosty packed powder was beginning to form on the streets. We rarely had a school day cancelled due to snow. The ski club was going out to Cockaigne, a tiny lodge in Cherry Creek, after school. I had thought that skiing would be great fun that night. My friends and I would make new trails through the trees, break away from the main slope.
Mrs. Gilson took us that day to a wide street at the top of a hill where we could see parts of our high school and other buildings downtown. The snow was coming down fast. She directed me to point the car down the hill. Through a haze of thick flakes, I saw a wide steep chute, slick with snow. If it were a ski slope, it would be labeled a black diamond. “I want you to let the car speed up and then,” she looked at each of us in turn, “because you’ll get your chance too. I want you to hit the brake. Feel the car slide.” Mrs. Gilson then faced forward, smiled, rubbed her hands together. “Let’s go,” she said. When I skied with my friends, we liked to think adults would discourage us from trying tricks on the slopes. We didn’t like to think they would urge us on. Worrisome for some illogical reason. Plus we were in a car and what did she mean let the car slide? As in out of control? Weren’t we supposed to avoid sliding? What if I hit something? Seriously. What if I went off the road?
“Any time now,” she said and nodded, still looking straight ahead. I nudged the accelerator to cosy up to the edge. The car responded by launching down the street. We were sliding in seconds because as the car picked up speed, I had, of course, immediately slammed on the brakes. As we slid sideways, the rear of the car advancing towards the front, I steered and had no control and then I heard Mrs. Gilson say something calmly to me. I couldn’t make out her words. There was a throbbing silence in my ears as if I were underwater. And then her voice broke through. “Get your feet off the brake!” she shouted. I did as I was told, and I could steer again, and then I braked and didn’t brake, on and off, steering when I didn’t brake, until the car hit the bottom of the hill and I could slow the car to a stop. Everyone clapped. I had to roll down the window and hang my head outside for a few seconds after that. I didn’t throw up, but I would have liked to.
In a city like Jamestown, driving meant independence. And driving in the snow meant a special kind of independence–the kind that didn’t leave you housebound or dependent on other people to drive you places during our long winters. Above the yearbook photo of Mrs. Gilson smiling behind the wheel of a car was a description of her class: “…familiarizes students with rules and regulations, bad weather driving, automobile knowledge…”
I live now in a place that doesn’t have winters like Jamestown. But driving will always mean independence — here too. My daughter will have it. The younger one also. She’s been listening to see the outcome for her older sister. I return to the table and tell them about my friend’s predicament on the road. In the end, I tell them, she convinced the truck driver to steer left enough to allow everyone to move past the burning car. My husband looks at me as if he’s made his point. I look at him as if I’ve made mine.
I live now in a place that doesn’t have winters like Jamestown. But driving will always mean independence.
I think of Mrs. Gilson. I’ve added to my driving arsenal as the years go on. In the hollow armrest between the front seats of my car, I have a small hammer with a metal tip that can break a windshield. In this part of the country, we have serpentine roads that cross a group of lakes that supply New York City with drinking water. If my car slides off the pavement, through the rail, and into a lake, I’ll use my hammer to free myself. That’s the plan. Mrs. Gilson was a woman with a plan. I rest my elbow on that armrest when I drive that strip of road.
Jimin Han’s writing can be found at NPR’s “Weekend America”, The Rumpus, The Good Men Project, KoreanAmericanStory, HTML Giant, The Nuyorasian Anthology and Kartika Review also include her work. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute. Twitter @jiminhanwriter