Memory is a powerful force, and anything can trigger a flashback. Although it seems like a hundred years ago since I was in school, whenever I see a car displaying a “Student Driver” sign, my mind goes back to my high school days.
I am a skinny, timid, and awkward teenaged girl. As one of my electives, I choose Mr. Kay’s Driver’s Education course. My decision isn’t based solely on what I learn about him from asking other students – most say that he is one of their favorite teachers – I want to learn to drive.
Mr. Kay is short and stout, but whenever he is spotted entering the school building traditionally wearing a well-pressed suit and stylish gentlemen’s hat, Mr. Kay exemplifies cool. In the classroom, he is not only thorough but also one of the kindest and most patient teachers. The fact that I have my first disheartening driving experience while taking Mr. Kay’s course is my own fault.
About mid-way into the semester, after Mr. Kay is satisfied that our class has learned automobile basics, traffic signs, and the rules of the road, he begins taking us, students, out to experience driving on the streets. On the day of my initiation drive, I am one of three students in the car. He tells each student what route to take, lets that person drive a short distance, and then instructs the pupil to pull over. And then, a different student gets to drive.
After a boy who is impressing us other students with his driving skill descends a ramp on North Capitol Street, Mr. Kay instructs him to pull over on the shoulder, turn off the engine, and then exchange places with me. I am sitting in the back seat beside another female. When the confident, smooth operator opens the rear door and waits for me to get out so that he can climb in, I sit there. Although I have been contemplating my first drive, suddenly, my heart is racing, and I am in a near state of panic. Mr. Kay looks at me from the front passenger seat, and motions with his head for me to get behind the wheel. “Come on.” He says. “You’re next.”
Fighting to ignore the butterflies in my stomach, I slide one of my quivering legs over the seat and then the other, and although I am having difficulty steadying my feet beneath me, I climb out of the back seat and into the front.
Mr. Kay senses my nervousness and says, “You’ll do fine.” His encouragement gives me a tiny boost of self-assurance. “Just relax, but be attentive.” He says.
Once settled in the driver’s seat, I execute all of the steps I learned in class. Check the rearview and side mirrors and make modifications if necessary. Adjust the driver’s seat. Turn on the car. (There were no seat belts back then. They were not required until after 1966.) Feeling satisfied that I have performed all of the essential steps, I turn on the ignition, switch on the left turn signal, and glance at Mr. Kay for reassurance. He nods indicating that I should proceed.
I position both hands on the steering wheel in the 10 and 2 o’clock positions as we were taught and check the mirrors once more before putting the car in gear and pulling off. Seeing no traffic behind us that would require me to merge, I exhale a sigh of relief.
And then – instead of gradually pulling off the shoulder and proceeding at a moderate speed into the nearest lane, I step on the gas pedal. Suddenly, the small car races like a speeding bullet diagonally across the roadway and enters into the farthest lane from the shoulder. Simultaneously, Mr. Kay jerks his head around to look out of the window behind me and then glares wide-eyed back at me. As I slow the car down and straighten it in the left lane, I steal a quick glance at Mr. Kay before focusing again on the road ahead of us. I ask myself, Is it my imagination that his coffee dark complexion suddenly looks chalky white?
I’m mentally patting myself on the back for getting off to a commendable start. But the “Good job” that I expect to hear from Mr. Kay does not happen. Instead, his normal baritone voice shrieks in high soprano, “OH MY GOD! What are you doing?”
Is this a Jesus, take the wheel moment?
“You can’t just pull off the shoulder like that and fly across to the far lane. You ease into the nearest lane and then if the road is clear, you make your way cautiously over to the left lane. If another vehicle had been coming, you would have gotten us all killed.”
Embarrassed is not sufficient to describe my feeling. I purse my lips together and curl them inward, but resist the impulse to lower my eyes; instead, I keep my attention on the road ahead, raise my foot gently off the pedal and let the car drop below the speed limit.
As he continues to admonish me, it is evident that my action has plucked Mr. Kay’s last nerve, and he is struggling to maintain his calm.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “But…but I looked in the mirror.”
During his follow-up barrage of do and don’t instructions, I think I hear him say something about remembering to check blind spots. But I am too busy wondering whether my blunder will eliminate my time behind the wheel for the remainder of the semester or worse yet earn me a failing grade. What student fails Driver’s Education? That’s like failing physical ed.
So when Mr. Kay says, “Pull over to the side of the road. We’re changing drivers,” protesting does not enter my mind. Had Shakespeare written a closing dialog for this scene, it would likely be, “The lady does not protest, methinks. And we know why.”
I survive the rest of the semester without incident and pass the course.
When I look back now on that first driving experience, I take comfort in knowing that I probably wasn’t the only student who gave Mr. Kay a near heart attack during his career as Dunbar’s driver’s ed teacher. And I will always remember him as one of my favorite teachers.
I’ve had my license for years now, and I’ve learned many lessons about driving. Next time I will tell you why if you see an old-school looking lady on the road driving like Miss Daisy, it’s likely to be me.