Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Learner's permit

My son Tim turned sixteen yesterday, and like at least two generations of suburban American kids before him, he celebrated the day with a trip to the Registry of Motor Vehicles for his learner's permit.

For the most part, I was pleased by his sense of urgency. Childhood, and even more so the teen years, have far too few rites of passage these days. With all the material goods and all the travel opportunities that so many privileged young people have access to, sometimes it's not clear to me what they have left to anticipate. I look at the teens I know locally who live in McMansions with swimming pools, billiards rooms, in-house movie theaters and vacation houses at the beach and wonder if they have any incentive at all to grow up and leave home. Do you yearn for your own little bachelor pad if your parents’ place has an in-house gym with a full basketball court?

So it feels right to me that there's something special and rare about turning sixteen, something cool and exciting that you get to do merely by reaching a birthday. But it’s not the de facto milestone that it once was. Articles I've read recently have supported what I've personally observed; when my generation were teens, we all wanted to drive, but now, with their overscheduled lives and their helicopter parents who are accustomed to driving them to every activity, some kids don't really care all that much about getting a license.

And it makes sense, in a way. Being able to drive yourself to SAT preparation class, math tutoring, or mandatory community service hours doesn't have quite the same allure as being able to take the wheel and go cruising with your friends on the strip. Moreover, new regulations that restrict whom teen drivers can take as passengers mean any possibility of cruising the strip -- wherever that strip may be, in our quiet semi-rural town -- still feels years away to a sixteen-year-old.

Tim returned from the RMV triumphant, permit in hand. It's definitely a rite of passage, and one he was delighted to undergo. I greeted his news with a little bit of ambivalence. First and foremost, there are the obvious worries about safety -- his own and those of other people with he could potentially collide -- but there's also the subtler sense that if he can drive, he's taking his first steps into not only the excitement and independence of adulthood but ultimately the drudgery as well. Welcome to errands. And having to be places on time. And dealing with car maintenance. And paying for gas.

But he's looking forward to it. He’s had plenty of opportunities to pilot various vehicles while working on his grandparents' farm; during the summer months he drove cars, trucks and tractors all over the fields and private byways on the farm. He knows the excitement of powering a large piece of machinery. Moreover, he's been driving a motorboat since he was about ten, and like a lot of kids, he just likes engines and speed and what happens when you get the chance to combine the two.

So I wish him all the best as he ventures behind the wheel. And I wish my husband all the best as well, because that's who will be overseeing Tim's driving instruction in these early days. I'll wait until he's a little more capable. Then I'll give him some errands to do. Because with freedom comes responsibility, and I'll be more than happy to pass on a few of my weekly trips to the town dump. Maybe that can be considered a rite of passage as well.

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