C-VILLE Kids: Behind the wheel with a new driver and her nervous mother

C-VILLE Kids: Behind the wheel with a new driver and her nervous mother

“You allowed her to drive home from the DMV?” my shocked friend asked me outside the high school that our daughters both attend. “They all want to, but nobody actually lets them. Are you crazy?”

That’s precisely what I asked myself on a sunny March afternoon when, spanking new driver’s permit tucked into the glovebox, my daughter repeatedly stalled our manual transmission Subaru at the bottom of a 250 Bypass exit. One green light. A second green light. Finally, as the third green light turned yellow, my girl ground the Forester into first, and made the turn onto Barracks Road. (To the credit of a lengthening line of Charlottesville commuters, nobody laid on his horn. Not for an extended period, anyway.)

From the moment you lay eyes on your newborn, you wonder, “How do I keep her safe?” (I remember high-fiving my husband at our daughter’s first birthday party because, after 12 months, she was alive and relatively undamaged.) Now, having been in the Mom Business for a decade and a half, I thought I knew from scared: A slow-motion roll off a queen-sized bed as a baby; a broken arm as a middle-schooler; years spent jumping horses over fences of ever-increasing heights. But not until I handed my car keys to a 15-year-old did I know the true meaning of fear.

To combat my panic, I briefly considered turning all driver education responsibilities over to her father, a kind, patient, and calm man. Also a man who travels frequently for work, though, so one Sunday afternoon, when Central Virginia was at its flowering spring best, my daughter slid behind the wheel. She adjusted her seat and mirrors, released the emergency brake, and we rolled out Buck Mountain Road in the direction of Free Union. We had two goals that day: Master a stick shift (hers), and don’t say anything you’ll regret for too many years (mine).

Four hours, dozens of miles, and a bazillion stomps on the invisible passenger-side brake later, we pulled back into the driveway. I wouldn’t call it a delightful bonding experience, but it certainly wasn’t the worst chunk of time the two of us have put in together. Learning to drive a manual transmission car is difficult and frustrating, but—aside from the potential-for-death factor—it’s no different from anything else: To get good at it, you have to practice. After a while, you figure out how to time the clutch with the gas pedal—and not to confuse either one with the brake. You learn to start on a hill and yield when turning left on green. You become wary of large cars that seem to be piloted by headless drivers, and unpredictable children in Harris Teeter parking lots. You check the gas gauge before it’s too late. And, as my daughter will attest, you ignore all distractions. Especially the anxious 50-year-old one riding shotgun.