in the beginning…

Over the last couple of years I’ve been entering into that most terrifying realm for all parents: teaching a child to drive.

My #1 child is all the things you’d hope for in a learner driver. She’s cautious, obedient, patient (mostly), understands road rules, knows enough about how the car works to understand what’s happening when she pushes that pedal or pulls that lever.

We’ve taken our time, working up from what we came to know as “industrial estate Sunday” (you know…where the industrial estates are all filled with learner drivers on Sunday afternoons) to quiet back roads, to suburban streets before finally graduating to freeways and busy arterial roads.

We’ve used professional instructors at a few critical times (I’d far rather pay someone to teach freeway merging than sit in the passenger seat myself for a couple hours of white-knuckle on and off-ramp experiences), built in some road trips to get bulk hours, and had her drive all the local kid-taxi shuttles for her siblings.

We’re now past the critical 100 hour mark which under the Queensland system enables #1 child to go and take the driving test. Our time as teacher/learner is coming to an end.

It’s been largely pain and tear free, and despite a few near misses (which I assume all learners suffer) and a few stalling-in-the-middle-of-an-intersection moments (ditto), everything has gone pretty well.

I’ve worked hard to be outwardly the least anxious person in the car, to not raise my voice, to not provoke nerves or (unhealthy) fear in my learner.

And yet…

Every time I’m in the passenger seat, I’m all eyes on stalks, and hand hovering over the handbrake lever kind of nervous. I’m sure I’ve left dents in the passenger footwell from the number of times I’ve tried hard to apply the brake pedal from my side of the car. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve repeated my mantras (“the secrets of good driving are smooth, deliberate use of the controls”, “remember to look ahead and anticipate” and so on) desperately hoping she’ll finally listen. As we approach the finish line (at least for this first one, #2 is lining up in in just a few weeks for his learner’s permit), it frustrates me that I can’t fully relax despite the evidence that she’ll (probably, maybe, possibly) be fine.

The truth is that despite the everyday nature of driving, every time we get in a car we put our life on the line – trusting in our own abilities and attention span, and that of every other driver around us. It’s almost the very definition of a dangerous activity, even though we rarely think of it in those terms. And those dangers, the immediacy of them, never become quite so stark as when you put your precious 17 year old behind the wheel, conscious of their limited skills, non-existent experience, and the multi-tasking nature of driving a car as a beginner.

Life is like that isn’t it? The things we take for granted everyday were once new, and fresh and risky. The things we can do without thinking once took every ounce of concentration we could muster. Maybe teaching #1 to drive has just reminded me that we were all beginners somewhere along the line, and that learning (particularly a skill where there is danger) is a difficult and challenging road (pun 100% intended).

And maybe it’s a reminder to me that it’s been a while since I was genuinely a beginner at some new skill.

A few years back I started riding mountain bikes with mates. We would head out into the bush, desperate to recover our lost youth, struggle up hills and bomb down the other side over roots and rock and (in my case very small) jumps. I now ride a few times a week and these days rarely think about the dangers or difficulties of this pastime. But I do recall that it wasn’t always like that. It used to be that near misses, and actual crashes were part of every single ride. I recall the months I went with gravel-rashed knees and elbows that for some reason take much longer to heal now than they did when I was 13. I recall every descent was a cause for nervousness and anxiety. Most of that is gone…unless I take a wrong turn and head down a trail that’s beyond my capability.

Deep down of course, I know that when riding my mountain bike I’m always just one mistake away from a busted collarbone, or a battered, bruised 48 year old body. A bit like driving a car. And just like driving the car, I rarely think about that reality.

Maybe teaching Miss 17 to drive is reminding me of all these things: being a beginner, the challenges of learning new skills, my own fragilities, the ease with which I dismiss danger, the task of trusting my child to grow into her adult self.

Maybe it’s me who’s learning after all.

choosing drama

Recently I was sitting with the 13 year old at a high school subject selection evening. She’s preparing for year 9, and has a couple of elective choices to make, so the school puts on an evening where all of this is explained to parents and students.

Helpful.

There are two things you need to know about this particular 13 year old. First, she’s very academically oriented (and I’d say gifted too…but them I’m biased). Second, she has inherited an intense introversion and dislike of public speaking from her parents.  We’ve both learned to do it, but it hasn’t been a fun ride.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh, right, subject selection.

In the end she had one choice left to make, and the list of options was long. A whole bunch of arts subjects, some industrial tech stuff, and geography.

I thought the choice was simple. She loves geography, would do well at it, would find it relatively easy. An easy choice.

Naturally, she didn’t choose it (I mean she could have, but then this would have been a dull story, right?).

She said to me “Dad, I’m going to choose drama”.

“Drama?”, I thought to myself.  “Drama? Seriously? What about geography?”

“Oh, that’s good” I said out loud, desperately trying to play the cool, supportive, helpful parent.  “Tell me why you’re thinking drama?”.

The answer, when it came, floored me.  Stopped me. Confronted me. Challenged me. Then and now.

“Because I know I’m not good at speaking in front of groups. It makes me nervous, and I’m not good at it. I think if I do drama for a year, it will help me to find my voice. I can always do geography later”.  Such is the wisdom of the 13 year old.

Now let me hasten to say at this point that I have no objection whatsoever to drama as a subject. I wish I had the courage to do it (I would be hopeless, but I still wish…).

It’s a choice that impressed me, and for several reasons:

  • She chose the unexpected
  • She thought it through enough to not just take the obvious choice
  • She chose to be challenged (and believe me, she will be challenged)
  • She chose her weakness
  • She chose to grow a new strength
  • She knows that choosing one (drama), involves letting go of another (geography)

So many of us (I raise my hand high) don’t take those kinds of choices. We stick with what we know. We stick with what we have already learned. We stick with what we have proven we can succeed in. We stick with the safe, the obvious.  To choose challenge, growth, weakness, risk?  That’s unusual.  Most of us would choose geography over drama every day of the week (it’s a metaphor…go with me):

  • We take a holiday to the same place (or at least the same kind of place).
  • We stick with the same kinds of food.
  • We make the safe, obvious career choice.

And so on. Geography over drama, every time.

In the organisation I work in, we are under some degree of stress. Our future is clouded.  Under such stress, we choose geography time after time after time. We choose what we know. We choose the obvious. We choose to keep doing what we’ve always done. I can’t help but think that at this point in our life cycle, we should be consciously choosing drama.

It’s left me both (a) incredibly proud of this child (even more than before…true); and (b) challenged in the way I go about my choices as a person, husband, father.

I’m wondering what it means for me to choose drama. I’m a little nervous about the next choice I have to make. And if I’m honest, a little sad too….because I quite like geography!