Heading Down the Highway–Finally

My youngest son got his drivers license yesterday. While I’m not a particularly religious man, I just want to say

Thank you, Jesus or Buddha or Allah or Zeus or any other deity that helped make this happen.

Our joy, as you can imagine, was matched only by his. Those car keys, if I may wax both philosophical and delve into the cliched, represent freedom and adulthood. On a daily basis, he controls some measure of his own destiny in a way that is both exciting and terrifying. He knows, in the back of his mind, that he now has the ability to move around town (or anywhere else in theory) without supervision.

The world is his oyster. He is, in so many ways, one step closer to leaving the nest.

And that’s not a bad thing. It is our job, after all, to slowly prepare our children to fly the coup, go out on their own, and hit the highway. Life, I think, is about movement and growing up not standing still and laying low.

Certainly, driving a car isn’t the only pathway to gaining independence, but we should note that the automobile holds a special place in American culture. We are, in many ways, a nation built on movement. The very infrastructure of our growth begins with rail tracks spanning the continent, followed shortly thereafter with interstate highway systems. Roads offered us a way to create new identities and opportunities to seek out new lives, new worlds, and new selves.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that my 16 year old son grab the car keys and head to California next week, but I am recognizing that he is one more step closer to having that opportunity. If, as many of us might argue, where we live helps define who we are, he will have the opportunity to put that theory to the test.

And I’m glad.

But I’m also struck by the growing trend that many people my son’s age are not getting drivers licenses at 16. While we might definitely argue the world is a safer place with fewer teen drivers, I think we are also seeing an interesting cultural shift that begins to redefine the value and importance of physical travel and identity.

I recognize there are a myriad of reasons 16 year olds don’t get licenses. As city populations grow and we increase access to public transportation, owning a car becomes less important. We can, in many ways, move throughout most major cities without a car. Cars, like so many other things, are also becoming increasingly expensive. Gas, insurance, taxes, inspection stickers, maintenance–these all push the cost of ownership outside the financial means for some families.

It’s also true though, that those things all existed 20 years ago. We all knew friends who had a license but no car to drive or, for some, no real reason to drive.

But they could if they needed to.

We also know that cell phones and social media have created abilities to stay connected and to interact in ways unique to this generation of kids. They can text, tweet, post, and instagram, creating electronically tethered friendships–4G service means never having to face the night alone. Google maps offers a chance to see cities, towns, and even their own houses via satellite, all from the comforts of their couch.

There is no doubt virtual travel has an impact on the impetus to slide behind the wheel and roll down the road, but there are plenty of studies also showing us that this generation values human contact. We know, for instance, incoming first year students don’t like online classes. They want to be with live, real, honest to god people.

As with so many milestones, as my son prepared for his big day, my wife and I bored him with stories. In Texas, or I should say, in our high schools, drivers education was part of the curriculum. We both took the class, starting when we were 15, culminating in our learners permit. The clear message, then, was that part of our educational journey in public schools was learning to drive. Like writing an essay, doing algebra, and learning to read, driving was part and parcel of being an educated citizen.

Upon high school graduation, the system said, we should have the skills and mobility to move on and move out.

Somewhere along the way, that mindset shifted (perhaps in more ways than one) and definitions of independence and growing up became the province of individual families, something private and personal. “We just didn’t feel like he was ready to move out,” some parents tell us when they explain why their sons are still living at home.

I’m not judging. Part of me fully recognizes the value of treating maturity individually.

But it also feels like we have lost something along the way. I don’t want my son to jump in the truck tomorrow and head for Montana, work on a ranch, and call home once a week.

There is a part of me, though, that is glad he could if he needed to. Plus, I’m awful tired of driving him to school every day.

 

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

One Response to Heading Down the Highway–Finally

  1. very interesting blog , i follow you and will read you , and hope you the succeed, thanks for accepting me as a reader .

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