Riding With a Teenage Driver

Nothing quite says heart attack like teaching a teenager how to drive. My son learned three, four years ago. I don’t remember much. I remember a long, eight-hour drive through Shenandoah National Park. I remember listening to a lot of rap and learning the nuances of my son’s music preferences.

I remember laughter and long conversations and seeing my son as a true individual and truly respecting him because he is a true individual who does not compromise his sense of self or his dignity and integrity so that other people would like him.

My daughter got her driver’s permit right before Covid. And in the course of the quarantine, we didn’t go driving. And then summer hit and I surrendered my vacation for hours spent prepping virtual lessons and creating content and curriculum. And then, school started. My daughter could have had her license by now, if I was a better, more determined mother. But, no. I am a bad parent.

But, steadily we have gotten in my SUV and my daughter has barreled us over mountains, down country lanes, and along highways and I’ve only panicked a handful (lots more) of times. Because my car does have a big engine and a sensitive gas pedal and sitting in the passenger seat means yielding control over everything except my invisible brake pedal that some unkind soul cut the brake line too.

I will confess to having lost my cool a couple of times for which I am still continually mocked. That’s okay. I earned the mockery.

Sitting in the passenger seat is not a comfortable place for me. I love driving. I love being the person controlling my little universe and how we orbit the worlds we encounter. I want to be Captain Kirk. I want to be the person to tell people to go to warp speed or to “make it so” or whatever. I am not a very good Star Trek nerd and am probably getting all of my lines wrong.


What I have learned about my daughter when being her passenger is her steely resilience. Her depth of thinking. Her sense of awareness of herself and others. Her observations of inequality and the need to right the scales.

Being my daughter’s passenger means having the too-rare opportunity to hear her sing. She has a rich voice, a raw untrained singing voice that seeps into the emotional chords within the songs and adds a subtle nuance. She sings everything from Broadways musicals to classic rock. One moment, she is Marius from Les Miserables eulogizing his friends whose sacrifice engendered no real change. The next, she is singing with Nancy Sinatra and how “These Boots Are Made For Walking.”

My daughter is rich with her opinions and wealthy with her insights. She sits high in the driver’s seat and stares out through the windshield at lines diving the road, at the roads curving over the horizon, and the wealth of opportunity at her disposal. Within the car, she unspools her thoughts and emotions, telling me about her dreams of studying government and law, of enacting change.

We laugh. We sing. We sit in silence. Sometimes, I bring a computer and I write. Other times, we talk, breaching long dusty hallways I had wanted to close off. But I allow her into the shadowy corridors, let her peel away the cobwebs, and touch the hidden Pandora’s box tucked under a cairn of rocks. Sometimes, she peeks through the keyhole. Once or twice, she opened it up and lightly touched her fingertips to the contents.

And then, just when I thought I couldn’t bear for her to see my vulnerability, she gently sealed the box and rested it in my hands, giving me back my rawness intact.

I wonder about the roads my daughter will travel. She is seriously thinking about entering the political realm. I remember how four years ago, I reassured the glass ceiling that my daughter, whom I’ve affectionately nicknamed the Hammer, is on her way. She will smash through the barriers erected by society. She will shove aside that which is meant to make her stumble.

Unlike her mother, my daughter is sure on her feet.

Being my daughter’s passenger has aged me. It has youthened me. It has rejuvenated me. It has drawn me close to her and seen that what I thought were rough edges were just lines I had drawn that she had erased and redrawn.

I keep seeing my children moving beyond me. I sit at my desk in my office and feel their presences shrinking away, their shadows going in new directions. And I want to hold onto them, sew the shadows more firmly to their toes. In a year, my daughter will be applying to universities. She will be moving further away than my son. She has her eyes set on DC. Someday, I think she will take me to the UN where she will be working.

Being my daughter’s passenger means also relinquishing the tenuous controls I have had on her life. I also see, now, that it means relinquishing the controls that I thought I had over my own life as well. Instead, if anything, learning to be the passenger means seeing more of the world as opposed to the stretch in front of me that is bisected by a series of parallel yellow lines that I can’t breach. It means that my daughter can show me the world she plans to inherit, the world she will change.

And, even then, I look forward to travelling that world with her as well.

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