December 19, 2014

The privilege of driving a stick shift in suburbia, and being able to laugh about it

My younger son recently got his learner's permit, and he's been eager to get out and drive as often as possible. He's only had four hours behind the wheel, and he's already almost--not quite, but almost--mastered the stick shift.

This is the car.
Last night he took me out for a practice drive. Fifteen minutes of warmup through our suburban neighborhood with broad, sparsely trafficked streets; gentle curves with good visibility and a few stop signs; and the mildest of hills. Christmas lights ranged from simple elegance to the most garish displays of electrical overindulgence I've seen anywhere. He almost missed one stop sign. Almost.

After the warmup, we went out on the bigger streets. Multiple turn lanes at stoplights, crossing major intersections, a lot more traffic. He was nervous but had done this once before and handled the vehicle well. Another stint through another suburban neighborhood... then:

He made a good start from a stop sign into a tight left turn despite the headlights of an SUV close behind. He got into second gear, then went to shift into third but missed and hit first again.

Have you ever accidentally downshifted when you meant to shift up? The car bucks like crazy, the engine fighting against momentum and slowing like you slammed the brakes. To his credit, he got it back to neutral and then found third gear almost immediately. He was flustered but not panicked.

Until the SUV behind us turned on its red and blue flashing lights. Yup, a cop. A cop at 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday night during the height of holiday party season. My son smoothly glided to a stop on the shoulder with a little coaching from me. The cop pulled up behind. My son was now very flustered as I retrieved his permit from the glove box and handed it over.

"Can I see your license, please?" The cop shined his flashlight into the car but stood behind the driver's window. I couldn't see him. My son handed out the permit, and I leaned forward into the light and asked if he wanted my license, too.

The cop's face broke into a big, knowing smile when he looked at the permit. "That explains it," he said. He said he was just making sure "we got home safely because from the sudden deceleration in the middle of the street, he wasn't sure we would." I.e. he though he'd spied a drunk driver. But it was just a kid, learning to drive a stick shift. A few more seconds of kind and gentle banter between us, with my son explaining the mis-shift, and he went on his way. My son did an excellent job of recovering, pulling away cleanly, and finishing the last 20 minutes of our drive without any mistakes.

For me, that is a great story, a funny anecdote, a memory I'll enjoy for decades. For my son, it's a great learning experience.

It wasn't until this morning that I realized it could have been a very different kind of story, a very different kind of learning experience.

If we hadn't been white.

I don't know the officer we met, and he was absolutely right to stop us to check us out. And he was right to be cautious as he approached the car. Once he saw us, though, everything changed. If we hadn't been white, would he have so easily dropped his caution? Maybe he would have. Maybe another guy wouldn't. With us, he was professional, kind, understanding, and efficient. If we'd been black, would we have gotten the same quick and cheerful dismissal?

I like to think in our town, yes. I like to think that our town is somehow more enlightened about diversity than the towns we've read about so often in the news recently. But I don't know. That's probably what the white people who live in those towns like to think, too.

For me, this is still a great story, a funny anecdote, a memory I'll enjoy for decades. And for my son, it's still a great learning experience. For him, the lesson is that he doesn't have to fear cops or be nervous if he ever gets pulled over again.

I wish that were the lesson that all 15 year old boys could get when pulled over for a simple shifting mistake while out learning to drive with their dads.

But I understand that's not the case.


Some day. Some day.


fairyhedgehog said...

A nice story.

And yes, white privilege is absolutely invisible to those of us who enjoy it. I have no idea how hard it is to be anything other than white in my neighbourhood.

I also enjoy being a woman privilege - being female, I'm not assumed to be a threat to children.

BTW, did you know that the new "are you a robot" times out if you take too long over your reply? I'd have thought robots would be quicker than people, not slower. Live and learn.

PJD said...

Thanks, Hedgie. I think it's interesting that you have woman privilege... in the corporate business environment, it's the other way round.