Thousand-Pound Missile

I attended a middle-age rite of passage last night as my daughter took me to her high school cafeteria for the mandatory meeting of parents of students taking driver’s education this semester.

Seventy-five students (in various states of eye-rolling exasperation at having to be seen with a parent in front of their peers) and parents (in various states of apprehension and bewilderment) trooped in and squatted at the lunch tables with attached stools.  (They fold in half, with wheels, for easy arrangement.)   (How do 6’7” athletes manage to sit at these and eat lunch?)

The ceiling was festooned with flags of the many nations represented at Burlington High.  We’re a refugee resettlement community; 27 (last I checked) languages are represented by students.  At the tables, many translated in low voices and filled out the paperwork, passing it along for the parental signature.

We were welcomed by one of the school’s business teachers, one of the in-car driving instructors.  He ceded the floor to the head driving teacher whose name I didn’t catch (sounded like “Finks”), but who I will always think of as “Mr. Hardnose.”

Mr. Hardnose is exactly who a parent wants teaching driver’s ed.  He launched right in on responsibility in a tone that implied that none of us – students and parents alike – had lived up to ours.  Good for him.  Lejla’s been a safe and responsible driver so far, but it’s Mr. Hardnose’s job to make the densest lunkhead in the class fit for the roadways.  (“Before I give you the yellow card and let you get behind the wheel of what is essentially a thousand-pound missile, you’ve got to show me something.”)  Seventy-five students, five driving instructors – two cars.  Serious, yes; luxurious, no.  Mr. Hardnose said he brings 40 years teaching experience.

It showed.  Eschewing technology developed after the Ford administration, he made his case on an overhead projector with transparencies.  He warned of his intolerance for late assignments, absences and said not to expect to see their progress tracked on the school’s computer program.

Directing the students to the state’s online resources he looked at the crib note in his hand and bellowed, “Double-yoo, double-yoo, double-yoo dot D-M-V dot Vermont – that’s spelled out – dot G-O-V.”  Really?  Could someone not get this guy a laptop, a projector?  We all enjoy mocking power points until we’re reminded of what life was like before them.

Still, a good performance.  Since Mr. Hardnose was a) old enough to have taught driver’s ed to me and b) right out of central casting, I felt a bit like an abashed teen myself.  “And guess what, parents?  When your student gets in that car, we’re going to see all the bad habits they picked up from you!”  (Gulp)

Then the various driving instructors called out the names of the students who’d be driving with them.  Four of the five instructors, all older men, stumbled – flagrantly – on the names of students from immigrant families.  Yes, Bosnian names are difficult for the average American (don’t I know it).  Ditto for Vietnamese and Somali names.

The crowd laughed as the men tried to get the names off their tongues.  I did too, to a point.  I began to pay closer attention and realized not only were the instructors stumbling over last names (understandable enough) but also over first names, which by now as Burlington educators, they should have learned to pronounce.  After a decade and a half they should know Aldin is pronounced al-DEEN, not ALL-din.

I remembered again it was September 11.  Tuesday evening I thought, “Twelve years ago tonight, we had no idea…” All day Wednesday I thought about how much has changed – wars and drones and refugees, the loss of lives and liberties.  Maybe that’s why the driver’s ed time warp felt so comforting, why the nerve fired so hard when I realized these educators held themselves so far removed from their students, their fellow (if new) Americans.  So far removed they couldn’t even say their names.

After the meeting, young drivers proud and nervous nosed sedans and vans out of the parking lot.  It was a warm, damp night approaching equinox.  Second spring.  A time for new opportunities, new responsibilities.

© Mark Floegel, 2013

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