We’ve always been a little behind when it comes to our oldest son. As the oldest of our three, he gets to experience most things before his brothers, which means that we get to help him navigate all of these firsts for the first time, too. As parents, we’re just trying to figure it out as we go.
And there are so many firsts to figure out.
When I was a young parent, there was one summer that stood out among others. It was the summer of 2007; my oldest had just turned two and I also had a plump and relatively agreeable newborn on my hands. It was a lot to keep my oldest occupied now that there were two of them. With my husband at work, I was outnumbered and outmatched. It was day after day of nap, eat, change, play, go to the park, snack, nap, change, play, play some more, laundry, and repeat. That summer, the days felt long and endless in a way that maybe only young parents can understand. But then an older friend said something to me I’ve never forgotten: When you’re a parent, the days can be long and slow but the years go by fast.
Now my oldest is 17-years-old and learning to drive. Last summer was supposed to be the summer he got on the road, and I naively tasked myself with teaching him. After all, my dad taught me and I thought, how hard could it be? I’m a good driver and I’m a teacher. I could do this. (I know some of you are laughing at me, and I am there with you.)
The truth is, I think teaching my son to drive was really more about me than it was about him. I wanted to be the one to teach him because it would be this concrete thing we would do together, mother and son, a way for us to connect. It’s been years since he’s been the toddler who demanded his momma’s attention. Teaching him to drive would be our thing. I’ve also always loved that it was my own dad who taught me to drive, no other instructor needed. When I was growing up, my dad never really helped me with homework (neither of my immigrant parents did), but he could teach his daughter to drive. That was something, our thing, and when I was 16, well, learning to drive was everything.
Fast forward a few decades, and I’m sitting in the passenger side next to my son.
The days can be long and slow but the years go by fast.
For the first lesson, we headed out to an empty office park. It didn’t take long for both of us to realize we had underestimated this endeavor. The trickiest part was developing a sense of the car: how hard to push the gas pedal, how hard to push the brake, when to start your turn, how to release the steering wheel coming out of a turn, how to leave enough space between the car and the curb, how not to panic when you accidentally hit a stationary telephone pole (yes, that happened).
After a few sessions in the parking lot last summer, we took a break. While I know I kept my cool and never once raised my voice (20 years in the classroom was practice), I’m sure he could pick up on my nervous energy. When I tried to re-engage and get him back out on the road, he didn’t really want to. He was always too busy when I asked… and he never asked. And then I stopped asking.
Two weeks ago, he turned 17. I finally made the phone call I’d been putting off in the months since he got his permit. I called a local driving instructor, who assured me that driving doesn’t come easy, that kids have a hard time making sense of the road and managing their turns, and no, I was not a failure for not being able to teach my son to drive (he didn’t say that last part, but this is what I chose to hear).
After four hours on the road with his driving instructor, I asked my son if he wanted to drive with me to go pick up some food for dinner. The restaurant was about 10 miles way and required some time on a highway. This time, he readily agreed and while our drive wasn’t perfect (we skimmed a curb and bumped another), he was more confident. Did I press the imaginary brake on my side of the car and hold it down the entire time? I did. But if my son noticed, he didn’t give anything away. I like to think both of us were trying really hard to be brave for the other.
In the days since, I’ve thought a lot about how the skills you need to be a good driver are the same ones that help in other areas of life. There are so many lessons, but of course, I don’t say the things I want to say directly.
When I tell my son to watch the curb to his right, what I want to say is take care to make space for others as you’re getting to wherever you’re going. When I tell him to slow down and watch for others that might come around the bend of the road unexpectedly, what I want to say is remember to pause and consider what might come next before you keep going. When I tell him to check his rearview mirrors, what I want to say—and what I’m hoping he’ll commit to memory—is never forget to look back and know where you come from.
And every time I buckle up next to him in the passenger seat, what I want to say is know I’ll always be here with you when you need me.
I want to say all these things, but I don’t. We just drive.
My son’s driving instructor also said one more thing I won’t soon forget. From one parent to another, he told me, it’s really hard and terrifying to teach your own child how to drive.
And when he used the word terrifying, I felt that in my bones.
But what terrifies me most isn’t the driving. It’s that 17 years have gone by and I’m running out of time with my son, that he’ll be off to college before I can blink and I don’t know how to navigate that. I don’t know how to make sense of the fact that the same 5-year-old boy who needed his daddy to hold his hand every morning to kindergarten will be moving out of the house in a little over a year. And then there are the unbearable things that terrify me, like how I get to teach my 17-year-old son to drive but parents in Uvalde, TX, won’t ever get to do the same.
In the days after the shooting, my son let me hug him—really, really hug him. He’s developing a sense of the things that matter, and he paused just briefly enough to make space for me in that hug.
And for a long moment, I know he’s going to be okay.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of Indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Bianca Adger (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).