I’m so thankful for the perspective I’ve gained with age. At 25, it’s now clear to me that most of the things I spent my youth agonizing over weren’t that bad. Do I even remember all the tests I studied for or the boys I liked? No. One experience, however, will always stick in my mind as something that deserved all the misery and anguish; an experience so singularly awful that I’m constantly awash in gratitude that I never have to suffer through it again. That experience is, of course, Driver’s Ed.
Much like everything else in my life, when it came to driving, I was a late bloomer. Like most kids who grow up in rural environments, I dreamed of the day I could get in a car and speed away from the cows, cornfields, and truck nuts. After all, driving symolizes everything you can’t do as a kid, the total loss of automation you feel when you can’t rely on public transportation or walking. When you live in the country, driving is the only way to get anywhere.
When I was 14, my family was involved in a serious car accident, and any driving ambition I had flew out the same window I had to crawl out of when I couldn’t open the crumpled Buick door. It was an experience that upsets me even today, but at the time it was all I could think about. I put off learning to drive; I got my permit, but let it expire and had to retake the test. Eventually, when my best friends signed up for Driver’s Ed, I knew I had to get it over with. Or my parents forced me. I don’t remember.
What I needed at the time was the vehicular equivalent of one of my childhood swim teachers; someone who understood how scared I was, someone who encouraged me but didn’t push too hard, someone who realized I wasn’t ever going to learn to dive so there wasn’t any point in making me stand on the diving board for ten minutes. That’s what I needed. What I got was Mr. Vaughn.
I imagined driving school would be in a classroom. We’d sit at desks and I could pass notes to my friends. Instead, when we showed up for a 2-hour class, we were greeted by a cramped room packed with folding chairs. We had assigned seats and I sat next to a boy our teacher referred to only as “Mr. Browning.” He had little interest in talking to me, instead preferring to lean over my lap to talk to a girl my friends and I nicknamed “Tan Belly” because of her tendency to wear half-shirts that exposed her tanning-booth bronze.
Mr. Vaughn himself was a vision in grey. You’d be forgiven for thinking I’m exaggerating for the point of clarity, and maybe my memory’s just betraying me, but I really can’t remember him ever wearing anything except for a grey t-shirt (like the ubiquitous flag t-shirts Old Navy sold for pennies every July 4th), a grey baseball cap, and grey knit shorts. It was the kind of outfit you’d wear to work out, only he wasn’t working out; he was teaching a class of 15-16 year olds the basics of operating expensive and dangerous machines.
Mr. Vaughn was going through a divorce, which we knew becuase he told us. Often. It wasn’t an amicable parting. I ruminated on this question: Did his bad attitude cause the breakup of his marriage, or did the breakup of his marriage cause his bad attitude? He couldn’t get through a lesson on parallel parking without casually berating a girl in the front row for playing with her bracelets, saying something cynical, or telling us a far-too-personal story. My favorite involved Mr. Vaughn, whose wife had taken their dog, putting his now-useless doghouse on the curb with a sign advertising its cost. I don’t know if this happens where you live, but in rural Ohio this sort of honor-system sidewalk sale is a pretty common way for someone to get rid of an old rototiller or 4-wheeler. That day before class, Mr. Vaughn told us, he’d watched from the window of his house as two men loaded his doghouse into their truck. Too scared to go out and confront them, he’d watched them drive away without paying. He told this story with the affect-less narration of a psychopath detailing a horrific murder.
I was understandably dreading my driving time with Mr. Vaughn. Not only was I terrified of cars, but I didn’t want to be alone with him in a confined space for two hours at a time. Mr. Vaughn would often pick us up to drive right after he worked out. If you’ve never been in the front seat of a Driver’s Ed car with a bitter divorcee who just sweated out his demons, well then, you just haven’t lived. Oh, and did I mention our car was a Geo Metro? Yes, the Geo Metro.
Mr. Vaughn often made us drive him around on his errands, which meant he was using work time to do personal shit. I’m pretty sure that was illegal or at least frowned upon, but no one said anything about it. Once I had to take him to the health department so that he could get a vaccination. I waited in the Geo Metro for 15 minutes, relived that this counted towards my driving time. He came out clutching his arm and as he slid into the low Metro seat he said, “Don’t punch me in the arm for awhile.”
I also took him to the bookstore, the Wendy’s drive-thru (“Don’t get so close you leave a blue streak on the wall,” he was fond of saying) where he always ordered multiple sandwiches, and the bank’s drive thru. Once, while making a deposit, the tube vaccuumed up his deposit slip and he leaned over me to yell into the intercom, “Could I get two suckers?”
I was touched by his thoughtfulness and kind of weirded out that he’d ask for a child’s favor from the bank. Perhaps I’d misjudged him; maybe he wasn’t so bad.
The tube whirred into life and sent his receipt back. He stuck the suckers in his glove compartment. “For my kids,” he said. Of course we were not going to enjoy Blue Raspberry Dum Dums together. Of course they were for his kids.
If anything, Mr. Vaughn’s class served to solidify my already significant fear of driving. The only thing I actually gained from the class happened the day Mr. Vaughn bought in all of his old cassette tapes to sell (presumably, the idea of selling things on the curb no longer appealed to him). It was 2002 and no one wanted cassette tapes; we all had Disc Mans and, in a few short years, we’d have iPods. But if you know anything about me, you’ll know that of course I wanted a grey, middle-aged divorcees unwanted tapes. As part of my birthday present, Cat bought me 3 tapes I picked out: Prince’s Purple Rain, George Michael’s Faith, and Wham!’s Make it Big. All three choices I stand by today.
Aside from the jams, I guess I also received some advice from Mr. Vaughn. “If there’s ever a point when you don’t know what to do,” he said once, “just imagine I’m sitting next to you.” Reading the words, it sounds comforting, but it sure didn’t seem that way when he said it. Even though he was clearly talking about driving, my friends and I laughed to think about bringing Mr. Vaughn along everytime we had to make a decision.
“Mr. Vaughn? What dress should I wear to homecoming?” The grey one.
“Mr. Vaughn? What should I have for lunch?” Two Wendy’s burgers and a baked potato.
I never got comfortable driving that car with the bastion of negativity seated beside me. “You’re too cautious,” he told me once when I hesitated at an intersection. I narrowed my eyes and my lips formed an angry, straight line. I didn’t say anything, because I knew that there weren’t any words I could use to describe the slideshow of twisted metal, broken glass, and blood that played in my head whenever I got in a car. Too cautious? Please.
One of the best things about getting older is being able to say, “Well, at least I’ll never have to do that again.” High school. A shitty summer job. Sadie Hawkins dances. Group projects. Driver’s Ed. I drove by the old Driver’s Ed building a few weeks ago and saw that it was no long there; now the building holds some sort of motorcycle shop. I wonder what Mr. Vaughn is doing now, if he remarried, if he’s alone, if he’s still bitter and unhappy. As much as I want to believe he’s happy, I know it’s more likely he’s as grey as ever.
I don’t know where Mr. Vaughn is or what he’s doing, but sometimes when I don’t know what to do I think about him. “You’re being too cautious,” he says in my head. What did he know about taking chances? This man who’d completely shut down emotionally, who existed in a colorless void where he spent most of his time trying to disillusion 16 year olds who were, for the most part, excited to gain the most freedom they’d ever had? Maybe that’s ultimately what I learned from him, more so than maneuverability or how to change lanes. Maybe he’s a reminder not to be so cynical. Maybe he’s a reminder to not ever let life bring me down that low. Maybe he’s always there, sitting beside me, saying, “You’re being too cautious.”
Or maybe he’s a reminder that Geo Metros are the worst cars in the world. Because they are.