I took Drivers Ed when I was sixteen. That was back when it was offered in high school and you didn’t have to pay for it. The shop teacher, Mr. B. I’ll call him, moonlighted as the Drivers Ed teacher. He would take you out on back country roads so that you could practice your moves . . . and he, his. Let me put it this way: you did not want to be alone with Mr. B. in his special car.
Mr. B. was a large, affable, chatty man. He had the right temperament for teaching teenagers to drive. Relaxed and unfazed, he sprawled beside his student driver, parts of him oozing over the midline of the car seat towards you like a coy version of The Blob. Not like my mother who, every time I got behind the wheel, gripped the door handle on the passenger side, white knuckled, as though prepared at any moment to abort the mission … to fling the door open and drop and roll. Then again, Mr. B. did have his own instrument panel, his own set of brakes.
Girls always paired up for these driving lessons. This was not imposed from on high. It was a survival strategy that had, over the years, calcified into a tradition passed down from seventeen year old to sixteen year old. If there was another girl in the car, Mr. B. would confine himself to a quick knee squeeze or two. Creepy, but not scarring. If you were alone . . . Well, you didn’t want to take that chance. Who knew what Mr. B. might be capable of?
Of course, it would have been a different story had Mr. B. been more attractive.
Later, when I was in graduate school, Professor J. fell in love with me. This was not particularly flattering. He was a large, hairy, unpleasant man whom nobody liked, me included. Unfortunately he was in a position of considerable power over me and I understood full well that I could either get in that student driver car alone with him . . . or not take Drivers Ed. I chose to drop out of graduate school, All But Dissertation for a PhD. Sexual Harassment, you see, had yet to be invented.
Of course, it would have been a different story had Professor J. been more attractive.
I dropped out of Drivers Ed as well. It was the movie they showed us of stupendous, fiery car crashes, severed heads flying in all directions, that did it. I could handle Mr. B. Later, during a brief interval in which I didn’t have a boyfriend and, therefore, lacked transportation, I studied the manual, had my father take me out a couple of times and got my license. It was easy. Some good old boy from the Motor Vehicles Registration office got in my Dad’s car with me, had me drive it around the block twice, then looked the other way while I failed to successfully parallel park, saying to my father, “That’ll come.”
When I took Drivers Ed, the boys were taught on standards and the girls on automatics. Why was that? Because girls were less mechanically inclined . . . or maybe because all that gear-shifting got in the way of hanky panky? I taught myself to drive a standard later on. Later on I became a feminist as well. Too late for my degree, but I’m not sure now that a life devoted to study of the ecclesiastical history of the fourth century AD would have been as fulfilling as I might once have thought. Not that I think Professor J. did me a favor. I do not. But, then, he was fifteen years my senior. He’s probably dead by now.