I've been thinking about my high school driver's ed teacher lately because my teenager is taking driver's education this semester. I tell my kid that as incredible as it may seem, some of the lessons I learned 30 years ago have stayed with me and I even hear my teacher's voice sometimes, cautioning me to maintain a car length between my front bumper and the vehicle ahead of me, for example.
And it's a good thing my teacher spent so much time lecturing about the importance of defensive driving. At the time I was near delirious with spring fever and bored silly by what I thought was inane droning. But I have to say, my defensive driving skills to this day are pretty darn good and I have nothing but thanks for Mr. Hickman, the driver's ed teacher at Lakewood High School.
I thought about Mr. Hickman the other day when I was forced to execute a defensive move in heavy traffic as a Land Rover inexplicably drifted out of its lane next to me and headed right for my passenger-side door at a fairly high rate of speed. My teenager was impressed that Mom was able to avoid the near-collision but her glee at my stunt-driving acumen was quickly replaced by indignation when she noticed the driver who nearly plowed into us was yammering into a BlackBerry while driving with just one finger on the wheel of her 2-ton behemoth.
"That is so totally uncool," my kid said, adding that her driver's ed teacher talks to her class a lot about the stupidity of driving and chatting as well as driving and texting. Today's teachers have a lot more challenges trying to impress upon kids the dangers of driving distractions. My driver's ed teacher talked to us about turning down the volume on the eight-track deck so that Peter Frampton was slightly less deafening. Cell phones, GPS display and MP3 players present a whole new minefield.
I asked a few of my newsroom colleagues about their high school driver's education experiences, and what they remember most about it.
Eric Deggans, the Times' media critic, said driver's ed served to break him of his lead foot.
"What I remember most was really realizing that I drove too fast, especially through intersections — the cars were little and we would hit a bump and everyone's heads would hit the ceiling — it freaked out everybody in the car and I thought, 'you know what, maybe I need to slow down.' "
Music critic Sean Daly told me he was intimidated by the giant panic brake installed on the floor of the passenger seat of the student driver cars.
"I was obsessed with that thing — I couldn't stop looking at it and wondering what it would feel like if somebody panicked and actually stepped on it."
Daly also recalls that his driver's ed teacher, Mr. Straub, was a dead-ringer for the Disney animated park ranger character, Audubon J. Woodlore.
Daly said Mr. Straub neglected to teach him the proper hand position on the steering wheel, so he failed his first driver's license exam attempt.
"My hands were at 9 and 11 and they were supposed to be at 10 and 2 on the wheel, so the lady failed me. I felt like I was walking into the Harrisburg (Pa.) DMV and kind of winging it. And the lady who tested me had some sort of skin disorder so she was missing a whole layer of skin, so that was kind of distracting. But everyone else passed the test the first time and I was the one schlub who didn't."
Reporter Anne Lindberg didn't have a driver's ed teacher at her Charleston, S.C., high school. Her mother sent her to a driving school after a less-than successful lesson in the family's manual shift car. Lindberg lurched and stalled the car all the way down the street. That was the final mother-daughter driving tutorial.
"My teacher at the driving school was Mr. Pooser. He was a former highway patrolman and he was unusually calm. Looking back on it, I suspect he may have been heavily medicated because he ended up getting my entire class as private students and I never talked to anyone who said he ever lost his temper or raised his voice. He taught me to never, ever drive one-handed and how to parallel park, sort of. He had a huge car — it was like a boat, and I couldn't ever get the parallel parking right. When I was tested, the right side of the car was in the space but the left side was hanging out although it was perfectly centered between the two posts. I asked if he wanted me to try it again and he said 'No!' I got my license but I'm still not good at parallel parking."
Columnist Howard Troxler confesses to retaining nothing of what he learned in driver's ed with the possible exception of keeping his hands at the 10 and 2 position on the steering wheel.
"But I do remember that learner's permit. It was a little slip of tape paper and to me it was the most precious thing I'd ever had," Troxler said.
We seem to have national holidays set aside to recognize darn near everyone and everything these days but the Doc has noticed that we have neglected our driver's education teachers and it's a shame. So I'd like to suggest that today be "Thank Your Driver's Ed Teacher" day. Thanks, Mr. Hickman, wherever you are!
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