There are no plants, no posters, no homey touches at the driver’s license bureau, just a few desks jammed together under the harsh glare of fluorescents, and seated behind them, in starchy uniforms and neckties, the examiners. The women examiners wear ties, too, though theirs are shorter than the men’s — either as a concession to fashion or evidence of the usual pecking order.
Still, they seem friendly enough, willing to kid around, make a teenager’s first road test less of an ordeal. But one stern-looking woman doesn’t join in the banter; indeed, she seems put off by it, as if smiling isn’t in the job description. Oh my God, my sixteen-year-old daughter whispers, I hope I don’t get her. The woman shuffles some papers, clears her throat. Next, she announces, like the Gestapo knocking at midnight.
Mara stands up uncertainly. It doesn’t help that I blew up at her just a few minutes earlier. I knew she’d had a rough day at school. I knew she was apprehensive about her first road test, afraid she’d fail. But instead of telling her to slow down when I realized she was doing forty-five in a thirty-five mile-per-hour zone, I yelled, You’ve already failed, no slouch myself when it comes to acting like a Nazi.
Teaching her to drive has been as hard on my self-esteem as on my Toyota’s clutch. It’s been even harder for Mara. What’s more disheartening than your overwrought father teetering on hysteria because you forget to signal a turn? Or the lecture, certain to follow, about cars as lethal weapons. He’s supposed to be teaching you, isn’t he? If the teachers at school were this inept, they’d be collecting unemployment.
That’s why parents should leave this job to experts, the experts say. Parents worry too much; they associate driving with accidents and injury, so they’re likely to overreact to the slightest mistake. Teenagers associate driving with maturity, so criticism from a parent is more devastating, more likely to wound.
Yet I was taught to drive by my father, and I wanted to live up to his example. He rarely lost his temper when I was behind the wheel — remarkable for a man not otherwise famous for patience — and for an entire summer he let me drive him to work. Wasn’t he frightened as we whizzed through the narrow lanes of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in rush-hour traffic, speeding cars on one side of us, a dank, polluted river on the other? If so, he never let on.
I’m no less devoted a father, but not half as good a teacher. My wife assures me that Mara drives safely, that I worry too much. My wife, I worry, doesn’t worry enough. Certainly there are worse dangers: AIDS and murder and rape, environmental disaster, the ancient litany of human troubles too vast to chronicle — though the father of a sixteen-year-old girl makes a stab at it now and then. Yet auto accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers, and this afternoon nothing seems more frightening to me than the open road, the killer machines that glide along it, and some jerk with a six-pack on the seat and a pocketful of uppers trying to pass my daughter on a blind curve. And like a deer caught in a sudden spray of headlights, all I can do is stare.
I try to catch Mara’s eye as she follows the examiner out the door, but she doesn’t notice. She’s headed for the rusty old Toyota parked outside, the car I drove for years to pick up her and her sister Sara after their mother and I split up: sixteen hours in the car every other weekend for barely much more time with them. I know that car as intimately as their faces, their voices, the endless miles that used to separate us, the tears held back or not held back. Mara lives with me now; someone else drives Sara back and forth for visits. But I’ve kept the tear-shaped pendant my wife gave me as a reminder of those journeys. It hung from the rearview mirror until this afternoon, when I slipped it into my pocket. I didn’t want it to distract Mara during the test.
Too nervous to read, I finger the pendant, stare at the wall, realize it’s never been clear to me how to teach children to survive. Do you scare them with stories about crossing the street, taking rides with strangers — or suggest that a loving universe welcomes them? And no matter what you say, aren’t you communicating what you feel, your narrowed eyes and nervous sweat, shimmering aura, pounding heart?
I want to trust Mara. Yet how hard it is to trust her with something as precious to me as her life. When she does something careless, I respond like an animal protecting its cub — only I can’t protect her from herself, can I? And if I get angry whenever she makes a mistake, all I’m teaching is anger: the same anger that built the bombs, that dresses up now as Croat or Serb and kills and kills.
Then again, when it comes to cars, there’s no ancient wisdom to draw upon. Never before this century have parents had to let go of their children in this way. See her, this woman-child, already too sophisticated by half: foot on the accelerator, hands on the wheel, the heater blasting warm air, the tape deck turned up. And the white line unwinds, the scenery turns her head. Oh seductive world, don’t smile so sweetly when she’s driving through you. Let those rain-slicked tires stop on a dime.
They’re back after about fifteen minutes, the examiner’s face expressionless as she returns to her desk. Did you pass? I ask Mara. She says she doesn’t know.
We approach the examiner. Ten dollars, please, she says without glancing up. Does this mean we’re turning my daughter loose on the road? She looks at me blankly. Ten dollars, please, she repeats. I reach for my wallet. She tells Mara to sit in front of the camera. She doesn’t tell her to smile.
As we walk out the door, I hug Mara, let out a whoop, ask her what we can do to celebrate. She just studies her license. She says she’s amazed how good she looks in the stamp-sized photo, though she rarely likes pictures of herself. It’s because I wasn’t smiling, she says. I look better when I’m not smiling. I tell her she looks beautiful. Ice cream? I ask, squeezing her shoulder. Pizza? No, nothing, she says, telling me to calm down. It embarrasses her when I get excited in public (I didn’t like my dad acting this way, either, when I was sixteen), so I just study the picture, tell her again how terrific she looks, knowing better than to add, how grown up.