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Baby Driver

What I remember most about driver's ed was the feeling of panic the first time I sat behind the wheel

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From the day I signed up to take driver's ed in summer school, I fervently hoped I would be assigned to Miss Bradford, rather than one of the scary male gym teachers who, rumor had it, forced new drivers to parallel park on the first day of class.

Fortune smiled on me, although not completely. I lucked out with Miss Bradshaw as my instructor but I'd be sharing the car with Lynn, an unfriendly classmate I knew from world history class, and Jack, a handsome, highly unattainable, haughty boy who wore pinstriped shirts with the collar turned up and leather loafers without socks. Not exactly a dream team but summer school was only six weeks long. Plus, if my luck held out, they'd be just as green behind the wheel as I was.

The first two hours of driver's education were spent in the classroom watching gruesome movies about car accidents on remote highways, followed by taking turns reading "Rules of the Road" out loud. After a short break, we hit the road. Nervously, I eyed the car our group had been assigned. It was a dark green Ford Maverick that didn't look too dangerous but definitely more lethal than my 10-speed bicycle.

"I wonder which one of us will drive first," I said to Lynn, who was standing next to me in a way that made me feel that I wasn't there.

"Who cares?" she shrugged.

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Although I wasn't about to tell Lynn, I cared. I didn't want to go first. I wanted to sit in the back seat and put off driving for as long as possible. Maybe if Lynn and Jack were really bad at driving, they'd take up the whole 90 minutes and there wouldn't be any time for my turn.

Jack joined us. "Can you believe that car?" he asked, jerking his aristocratic chin toward the Maverick. "It looks like something my grandmother's maid would drive. Couldn't we have gotten something with a little more horsepower?"

"Like that?" Lynn asked, pointing to an AMC Gremlin another group had been given.

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Jack looked disgusted. "I wanted to drive stick," he complained. "I signed up to drive the Rabbit but I was too late."

"You know how to drive stick shift?" I asked, my voice shaking with impending panic. In my world, only movie stars like Steve McQueen drove stick. The rest of the world had automatic transmission and thank god for that because I knew I'd never be able to handle manually shifting gears along with everything else that was about to be thrown my way.

Jack looked at me as if one of the orange traffic cones had spoken. "Of course," he said disdainfully. "I've been driving stick since I was 13."

Lynn didn't seem impressed with Jack's newsflash and I had a sudden sinking sensation that I was the only true driving novice in the group. "How could you drive when you were 13?" I asked. "That's illegal."

Neither Jack nor Lynn bothered to answer my naïve question. Of course they'd been driving since they were 13, if not earlier. That's what the cool kids did—they drove, smoked Marlboros and never paid the least bit attention to talking traffic cones like me.

"All right, gang," Miss Bradford said as she approached us, clipboard in hand and bouncing lightly in her Keds, "Who's up first?"

I let Lynn and Jack go before me and they each drove flawlessly for about 30 minutes. Jack drove with an easy grace, one hand on the steering wheel and the other dangling out the car window like a young James Dean until Miss Bradford sternly reminded him to use the "ten and two" position. Lynn slouched behind the wheel and babbled with Miss Bradford about Paul McCartney's upcoming tour. That she could drive and talk at the same time astounded me. That they were both excellent drivers made me sick to my stomach.

Finally, it was my turn. After pulling my seatbelt snugly across my waist, I gripped the wheel so tight my knuckles turned white and my palms began to sweat. "Let's drive down Sheridan Road," Miss Bradford suggested.

Sheridan Road. Sheridan Road. Where the hell was Sheridan Road? Although I'd walked, biked and had been driven down Sheridan Road my entire life, my mind went completely blank.

"Uh, where is Sheridan Road?" I asked.

"Turn left at the stop sign," Lynn said from the back seat, a silent "Stupid" trailing behind her words.

Somehow I managed to get the Maverick from the curb onto the street and all the way to the stop sign, cruising along at approximately five miles per hour. A heavy silence filled the car and although I couldn't see either Jack or Lynn, I sensed a lot of eye rolling and general disgust.

"Use the power of the car," Miss Bradford urged. "Try to drive at least the speed limit."

As my inner panic took control of the wheel, I stepped on the gas and the right half of the car lurched up onto the curb.

"It costs just as much to drive on the road as it does to drive on the curb," Miss Bradford said, as she leaned over and grabbed the wheel. Seconds later, the car returned to the road with a profound thud.

"You've never driven before, have you?" Miss Bradford asked 27 minutes later, as we miraculously returned to the parking lot behind the high school.

I shook my head. Actually, my entire body was shaking.

"I want you to go home and tell your mother or your father to take you out driving for an hour every night," Miss Bradford said. "You need practice. A lot of practice."

"I'll say," Jack muttered from the back seat.

All I could think about in that moment was getting out from behind the wheel of that potential death machine. "You'll get better," Miss Bradford told me. "You couldn't possibly get any worse."

She was right. By the end of the summer, I was driving.

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