Growing up on a farm in Iowa, I spent hours next to my dad in the front seat of his pickup. When my legs finally grew long enough to reach the pedals, I occasionally slid behind the wheel to drive down the dusty country roads. So aside from the chore of obligatory driver’s ed, getting my driver’s license the day I turned 16 was a breeze.
That afternoon I inserted the key in the ignition of my inherited 1979 Monte Carlo, cranked up The Cranberries, and took off for town. My parents stood at the kitchen window and waved as they have every time I’ve left since, a bit nervous, I’m sure, but also confident that they taught me what I needed to know.
On the day he received his driver’s permit, I asked my son, then 15, if he was ready to get behind the wheel, forgetting that my city-kid son had no experience other than a few laps on a four-wheeler and some time on a go-kart track.
I pulled over a few blocks from home and encouraged him, sweaty palms and all, to drive for a few blocks. Like a newborn calf on wobbly legs, he was jerky and unsteady. Every corner was an adventure, every movement reactive, and several times I had to grab the wheel when it appeared he was getting too close to a parked car. But we made it home ― or at least to our block. (I pulled the car into the driveway.)
Over the next several months, he practiced and practiced. We started with laps around the elementary school parking lot and graduated to four-lane highways. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that he can now parallel park better than I can. He’s still nervous about busy on-ramps and worries about some of our downtown streets with weird one-ways and light-rail tracks, but mostly he is a safe, conscientious driver.
Still, I worry. Sure, all parents worry about their new young drivers with still-developing brains. But I worry for a couple of unique reasons.
My husband and I adopted our sons when they were 7 and 8, nearly nine years ago.
In older child adoption, we use the term “family age.” So a child’s chronological age might be 16, but his family age can be nearly 9.
Nearly 9 is sprawled on the floor playing Legos and taking turns on the backyard Slip ’N Slide. Nearly 9 is arms raised in celebration at a soccer goal and cuddling in to watch ”Phineas and Ferb.” Nearly 9 is belief in Santa and singing enthusiastically at a school holiday concert. Nearly 9 is bedtime reading from ”Harry Potter” and arguing with his brother in the backseat on family road trips.
Nearly 9 shouldn’t be behind the wheel of a moving vehicle on those road trips.
I feel like Steve Martin’s character in “Father of the Bride” when he imagines his daughter as a little girl, declaring, “I met a man in Rome … and we’re getting married!” My son is now as tall as I am, but when I see him position the mirror before shifting the car into gear, I wonder how he’s tall enough to see over the steering wheel.
Some of our first interactions as a family of four took place in a car. Well, more specifically, a van whisking us through the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. While I’m sure my sons had to inwardly be freaking out that these new milky-white strangers ― Mom and Dad? ― kept smiling at them, outwardly they were excited about the drive as they experienced never-before-seen parts of their home city. This son, then 7, kept repeating “Chaka chaka!” and then laughing uproariously.
“What does ‘chaka chaka’ mean?” I asked our interpreter.
“I don’t know. It’s not Amharic.”
After chatting with our son for a few minutes, our interpreter turned to us, smiling.
“He thinks he’s speaking English. He was sure you understood.”
Years later, we no longer need a translator, but sometimes I think one might be helpful as we navigate the teenage years, especially the teenage years during a pandemic. What does it mean when he stays in his room staring at TikTok for several hours a day? How does one say, “I worry that you aren’t interacting socially,” in a way that doesn’t offend? What is the teenage way to say, “I love you and am really worried about you getting your license and driving by yourself and yes I know you are responsible and good but I just don’t want anything to happen to you because not everyone else in the world is good and responsible,” that won’t result in the world’s biggest eye roll?
But on top of all of this, I also worry because my son will soon be Driving While Black.
My husband and I aren’t sharing from experience here, but we are using our resources. Our words aren’t always eloquent. We stumble and fumble, trying not to let our own privilege make the conversation too carefree, while also attempting to avoid too much fear.
We live one neighborhood over from where Philando Castile was killed in 2016. We moved to our current home, just a nine-minute drive from his memorial, in the summer of 2017 when Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges.
When my son gets his license and I send him off in the family SUV to pick up his brother from work or to run a quick errand for me at Target, I will see a nearly 9-year-old. I will picture his toothless grin and hear whispers of “Chaka chaka” in my mind. But will police officers see a dangerous Black man ― a threat because he signaled too early or too late, because he proceeded on a yellow light too close to turning red, because he looked too serious or too silly?
During one of our first driving lessons, we were coasting down a residential street in our neighborhood when my son did something I’m sure I had done a million times while driving. It was so minor at the time that now I can’t even recall what the act was. Maybe he made a lane change too close to an intersection or didn’t signal when pulling out of the parking lot.
“Can I do that?” he asked immediately. He was learning and earnest and wanting to do everything right.
“Well, technically I’m not sure, but I’ve done it a million times,” I responded with the self-assuredness of a white woman who has been pulled over a total of two times in my life, both while in college. (One time I doe-eyed blinked myself into a warning, and the other I received a small fine for going nearly 20 over on the highway in the pitch-black of post-midnight.) For a brief time while in high school, I dated a boy in a neighboring town, a 14-minute drive from my family farm. I had a midnight curfew, and undoubtedly I would wait until 11:50 to leave his house. I would drive as fast as my Monte Carlo would go, my prefrontal cortex not aware of the risk I was taking. I wasn’t pulled over once on that drive.
“Can you do that?” I responded again after a few moments of thought. “Probably not. I am a middle-aged white woman. I maybe shouldn’t be giving you driving advice.”
His laughter then wasn’t toothless or genuine. He knows the risks. After all, he’s a teenage boy in the age of social media. He’s seen all of the hashtags, read all of the accounts of Driving While Black, Jogging While Black, Listening to Music While Black, Walking Home While Black.
I’m the parent, though, so I do give advice. Nearly every time he gets behind the wheel for a driving lesson, my husband and I inject other lessons, too. We sprinkle in adages to accompany the GPS directions: “This is what you do if you get pulled over. Here are the important documents. An officer won’t know your personality. Be respectful. Make sure your hands are always visible.” My husband and I aren’t sharing from experience here, but we are using our resources. Our words aren’t always eloquent. We stumble and fumble, trying not to let our own privilege make the conversation too carefree, while also attempting to avoid too much fear. (He already thinks I worry too much.)
We ask dear Black friends to share their experiences of getting pulled over, followed through their neighborhoods, approached by the police in a parking lot. We research the best brands of dashcams and order one for an added layer of protection. And we share the stories from the news, going beyond the hashtags, trying to achieve a balance of education without hopelessness.
Our son listens, and sometimes questions. And of course he rolls his eyes, too. He is, after all, a 16-year-old boy (even though in his dimple I still catch glimpses of 7).
So he gets into the car and buckles his safety belt and follows all of the rules and procedures, becoming a better driver than I am. He researches routes and keeps his important documents at the ready. Yes, he knows when to signal and how to park, but have we given the advice that will keep him safe ― that will keep him alive? Are there magic words or a special incantation that we missed along the way? I will pray and light candles and track his phone religiously, watching his icon move steadily down the road toward school, to his brother’s workplace, from a friend’s house.
And I hope that it’s enough.
Kimberly Witt is an Iowa transplant placing roots in St. Paul, Minnesota. With her husband of 16 years, she is raising two amazing teenage sons who were born in Ethiopia. She enjoys writing, running, and (surprisingly) helping her sons with math homework.
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