I am teaching my 16-year-old son to drive. He has his learner's permit, and for him to get his license, I must sign an affidavit that he has driven with me for 50 hours. Many parents describe those 50 hours as harrowing, like driving through minefields or through the familiar nightmare -- the one in which the car you're driving has no brakes and you can't stop it as it speeds you toward certain death.
Max and I are at hour 20. And while there have been a few prayer-inducing moments, I am hoping to log 100 hours. Teaching Max to drive has been a joy, much more satisfying than teaching him to ride a bike, shoot a basketball, write an essay or make a quesadilla. Those lessons occurred in the middle of so many distractions -- siblings screaming for attention, cell phones ringing, computers crashing, dogs barking.
When Max and I go out to drive, we make the car our sanctuary. We fasten our seatbelts. We turn off the radio. We turn off our cell phones. We carry no passengers or cargo. We adhere to no schedule. We coexist for that hour or two as I imagine fathers and sons routinely did once upon a time. In the quiet of a field they plowed together. In the back room of a shoe repair shop, the son serving as apprentice to the father. Under the hood of a car, changing the oil in a time when every corner didn't contain a Jiffy Lube.
I am not a lover of cars. To me, they are overpriced tools, nothing more. And Max, too, is an auto-pragmatist. He doesn't see the car as a metaphor for freedom or self-expression. We are not descended from the Beat poets. In fact, Max didn't even ask to get his learner's permit until seven months after he was eligible.
And yet our driving lessons have become our Sabbath. We catch up on the events of the past few days. We discuss politics. Max talks about what he's reading in school. The other day, he told me how much he's enjoying "Huckleberry Finn." We talked about how Twain lets Huck speak for himself, in his own language. We describe and compare the best pizzas we've ever eaten. We plan the week's dinner menus. Max tells me about track practice, how he hates it and loves it at the same time. I tell him stories about my father, of a road trip we took once, just the two of us, to the place where my father was born and raised. I tell him how my father told me the story of his life that week. I didn't think of it then, but that was the only other time a car was a holy place for me.
Several states are considering changes to their driving laws. Some are proposing limits to the number of passengers teenage drivers can transport. Some want to raise the driving age to 17. Others to 18. Those are all good ideas. I'd like to add one to the list: Every new driver must spend 100 hours on the road with a parent.
Jim Sollisch is a writer in Cleveland.