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What the Trauma From My Father’s Driving Lessons Taught Me

It takes a lifetime to unlearn the lessons of a dysfunctional parent. My father, being the perennial cheapskate, decided he was going to teach me how to drive to save on the package of driving lessons at the local school.

“Get inside,” he’d command out of nowhere, maybe after the supermarket run or on a Sunday morning — not asking whether I was up to it or not. Because most days he was a raving lunatic, I had to appease him so his rage would not reach Defcon 9.

Now, most teachers know you cannot flood a student with every variable to a complicated task like driving all at once. You have to break it down into a series of steps, practice in a simulated environment, focus on mastering one or two functions (steering and speed calibration) before leading a student headlong into “real” traffic conditions. But no, Baba was not that kind of teacher. He did everything wrong in terms of pedagogy.

First of all, he had no safety net in place. There was no emergency second brake in the passenger side. This created a sense of dread and panic in me. The panic was compounded by the fact that he would scream obscenities if I made any little mistake behind the wheel.

“Too much, too much, too fucking much! Cut it! Cut it!” he would yell in my ear.

When in my panic I’d swerve the car too close to the curb, he’d reach over with his hairy Popeye forearms and yank the wheel, straddling his left thigh over the gears and pressing down on top of my measly foot on the brake pedal, nearly cutting off circulation to my toes.

“Goddamn! You have to control the wheel but not too much,” he’d scream in exasperation. So he gave me as much confidence as a one-winged sparrow in a snowstorm.

He did not stop to check for understanding as most teachers do. Instead, he’d go rambling along: “The brake pedal is the long one on the right — the gas is the shorter, smaller one on the left. Don’t change gears unless you are pushing down on the brake. It’s best not to take your foot off the brake or at least you should hover over it. But you can’t step on it at the same time as the gas, as that will ruin your transmission. Once, twice and kaput your engine is shot,” without bothering to find out if I had processed what he was saying. In his head, if you spoke the rules, you should get it. Period.

There was no room for error. There was no escape. There was only certain death and catastrophe if I spiraled the car too left or too right. If I went too slow or if I went too fast. If I didn’t signal at the time he thought it was right. And then the worst part, he made me head into traffic without giving me enough practice time in simulated environments, such as the parking lot or an empty alley.

By this time, I was a bundle of knotted nerves. Each driving lesson with Baba became a fight-or-flight response. Driving felt like a matter of life or death. If I could have calmed myself down, I was not so bad a driver. But Baba’s incessant verbiage made it hard to focus on the actual driving.

“Watch out for the truck!”

“Stop before the yellow line, you’ll get a ticket! I ain’t paying no damn tickets, motherfucking cops!”

It made it hard to focus on the actual driving. Only ten minutes into a driving lesson and I would be sweating bullets the size of bazooka cartridges. The back of my car seat would be soaked in sweat. My heart would be beating out of my eardrums. And then he’d say, “Let’s take the shortcut.”

The shortcut was a cut-throat tangle of interstate, service roads, entrance to the Triborough Bridge and an underpass for the elevated subway tracks. It was always a mess. The Gordion knot of streets was made more treacherous for the fact that the traffic going under the train tracks had not one, but two traffic lights until it passed through the two arteries that intersected it. The problem was there would be so much backed up traffic that cars would not clear the intersection because they’d be blocked by the cars ahead of them, causing the drivers who were cutting through perpendicularly to jam. There would be red faces, horns tooting and all sorts of cussing when that happened. Basically it was a no-go zone for up to five minutes. Tempers flared. But that was the shortcut.

Baba made me undergo this rite of driver’s passage on the third or fourth driving lesson. Even experienced drivers would get stressed in such a knotty intersection. Most avoided it altogether. But not Baba. He was the “sink or swim” type of teacher. “Life is tough, you have to be tougher,” he’d snort.

“Go! Go! Go!” he exclaimed. “Faster! Faster!”

He was directing me head first into the Gordion mess. My spine stiffened, my eyes popped and my face turned red like the episode in “Tom and Jerry” where Tom gets his claws smashed by a hammer. How was I going to make it through the intersection in time before the light turned red?

I could imagine it already, “Stupid idiot! Don’t you know how to drive?!? Get the hell out of the way!”

“Make the left, make the left,” my father’s hairy forearm yanked the wheel.

“Step on the gas,” he yelled, just at the traffic light was turning a blood orange.

But I could not measure distances well. I had no idea how much to push the gas before it whammed into the back of the Audi sports car. So I I panicked and I did something I could not have foreseen: I did not take the turn. I kept straight, missing the shortcut but making half of a figure eight as I swerved out of the way of the fenders of cars butting out.

“What the hell are you doing!?” he chided. “You missed the turn. Are you trying to kill us?”

“I can’t take it! I can’t take it,” I screamed back. “I can’t drive. I don’t want to drive. I never want to drive.”

And that’s exactly what I did. I avoided driving at all costs. I was the only person in New York City history to ask for driving lessons after I had passed my driver’s exam.

“Let me get this straight,” the man at the local driving school asked. “You have your driver’s license already?”

“Yes, I do.”

“You just want a refresher course?” he inquired.

“Kinda, sort of.”

“It says here you received your license less than a year ago.”

“I know,” I said. “I still feel insecure behind the wheel.”

“No problem,” he said as he looked up behind his spectacles. “That’s understandable.”

The refresher courses gave me confidence, but they did not help me get over my fear of driving. I think the fear of becoming a mangled mass of flesh with eyeballs boinging on the dashboard was only one extent of the damage. The other was the fear of getting lost. In addition to barraging me with a rapid fire machine gun series of commands, Baba also expected me to know how to navigate through the streets without a map. In fact, he expected me to be his GPS even when he was driving. He would dunk his heels into the gas in a Rumpelstiltskin rage when he’d miss his exit.

“Damn!”

He would get so riled up, he would second- third- and fourth-guess himself just before the exit on the freeway.

“Tell me which way to go,” he would scream from the driver’s seat at me, scrambling to make sense of a map with a den of cats cradles of roads and signs.

Even when I felt sure I had explained to him the right way to get off at exit 23 which will lead to the 495, he would ask me over and over so I would doubt myself and relent changing the itinerary and losing the way. Once he got lost for three hours going over Connecticut, then Manhattan and Brooklyn before we got to Queens — all because he would not pull over to read a map or at least ask a gas attendant the way.

Driving was more than stressful with Baba — it was plain old traumatizing. He put the fear of driving and navigating so deeply, it stayed with me for years. I had to rearrange my life to accommodate the fear.

My first real teaching job was for the University of Maryland at USAFE headquarters Ramstein. When during orientation, the deans explained that as itinerant adjuncts, we could be assigned to various bases scattered across the Rheinland, I lived in mortal fear I would have to drive from one town to the other.

“Could I possibly ride a bike from Ramstein to Landstuhl?” I asked Dean McCann.

“Not unless you were crazy,” she said.

Even though there were many biking paths in the major German cities, it was out of the question to bike on the autobahn. So I begged to get an assignment at the large base to forgo the need to travel. Luckily they complied, as there were few adjuncts willing to forsake home and a tenure-track career for the chance to live and teach in Europe.

But even this entailed a 20 to 30 minute walk from the officer’s quarters where I was staying to the DODDs high school where the university scheduled college classes after-hours. I was the roving professor on base.

“Hey, isn’t that the teacher for English 101?” the wife of a staff sergeant in the class asked, tugging at his sleeve and pointing to the moving duck, decked out in a plaid shirt, sneakers and jeans.

He slowed down and squinted, “Yeah, I think you’re right. What is she doing walking through the sewage plant?”

What she was doing was cutting through the base via the shortcut.

“Perhaps we should give her a ride.”

This became a daily routine. It was a welcome break to have a lift, especially at night in winter when it was dark, forlorn and cold. But then it was time for grades.

The sergeant who gave me rides to class was running a C-. Technically, that would have been a failure according to academic policy.

“But he was so nice to drive me every day,” I reasoned.

“No,” I countered myself. “You can’t compromise your academic integrity for a ride.”

And so I gave him a B-. There is no such thing as an objective grading system. Professors are human. They will bend the grade in an hour of need.

I relied on the kindness of strangers to move me around the base. On Sundays, a genial couple would honk at the entrance of the PX to let me attend services at the chaplaincy all the way on the other side of the base. USAFE Headquarters was huge, complete with landing areas for F16s and US1 if need be, a movie theater, bowling alley, supermarket/department store and housing for close to 25,000 troops. To get around, I lived and died by the base bus schedule.

“Ms,” a mild-mannered, newly enlisted private from Kentucky asked me after class. “With all due respect, have you considered purchasing a vehicle? Germany is known for its reliable automobiles and these can be had for a very reasonable price.”

“Thank you for the suggestion,” I responded. “But as a girl from New York City, I never had the need to drive. The subway took us everywhere.”

It was an excuse, of course. That was my luck. I was living right smack in the country of the sleekest, meticulously engineered cars and not one was in my reach. Water everywhere and not a drop to drink. I considered looking into the prospect. What was the use of owning a vehicle if one was terrified of driving it?

I went out of my way to find the local psychologist on base and receive a few counseling sessions. She was a Cognitive Behavioral (CBT) practitioner and told me to create a mental schema before I got into the car by looking at the palm of my hand and carving out north, south, east and west. Using this floating gridline system, she taught me that my cognitive mind could create the confidence I needed to get over my fear of driving. Even with a mental map and even later with a GPS, the fear was not so easy to unlearn.

It incapacitated me for several years even after I returned to the U.S. When I got a job teaching in Bay Ridge, I had to ask my little brother to drive me all the way down the horror of the BQE every morning when his job was literally around the corner.

“I can’t understand it,” his boss would chide him. “You come to work late every day, yet you live literally five minutes away from the shop.”

My fear of driving, which was connected to my fear of getting lost, was ultimately screwed into me by my father. It would take years before I got over the fear. The major part of this ultimate learning had to do with unlearning the lessons my father taught me. The mind is a sensitive instrument, sort of like an astrolabe or a pocket watch. The emotional gears, some so tiny and intricate they need a jeweler’s eyepiece to view, can become warped in one or two of their teeth, throwing the whole mechanism off whack. Teaching has less to do with the what and more to do with the how and who. What we learn on the subconscious level has more bearing than whatever is transmitted on the overt conscious level.

The driving lessons my father taught me had more to do about life and my sense of self than the physical act of driving. Those lessons communicated screamingly in several layers of subtext: You are not capable of handling the vagaries of life by yourself. There is going to be a disaster at the smallest mistake you make. You will always be lost. Everything is a wrong turn. Don’t trust yourself. You are always heading in the wrong direction. Obey someone outside yourself; you cannot be counted on to carve your own path.

Whatever shoots of confidence were burgeoning in me as an adolescent clawing at independence, my father smashed with a big black boot. I had to devote a major part of my adult life unlearning his lessons so deeply nailed into my subconscious. I had to essentially teach myself how to drive all over again. Learning to drive became an act of courage, a metaphor for moving in the world on my own terms. It became physically and psychologically a vehicle for my learning to drive my own life. It took me years to feel comfortable enough to sit in the driver’s seat. (P.S. It takes that long and sometimes longer to overcome trauma.)

Eventually I did by slowly telling myself not to be afraid, to garner my own strength and find my own inner confidence so I could navigate the world by myself. Since that time of frozen fear, I have driven cross-country in 24-hour stretches. I have driven in the Middle East where the roads and the temperament of the drivers made driving in Germany feel like a kiddie ride.

My father’s undriving lessons have also informed my teaching practice. I grew up to become a professional educator. I consider myself a darn good teacher because I teach to the whole person. I have worked with some of the most challenging adolescent populations — hostile and broken with multiple traumas. I excel with these groups because of the lessons about how not to teach my father showed me.

To learn, a student must feel trust, safety and regularity. You must teach as much to the emotional side of a student as to the cognitive. I am convinced that all learning is emotional learning. The lessons are most ingrained in us because they go so deep into the amygdala and hippocampus, the emotional processing centers of the brain, Without the emotional context, the infrastructure to transmit the lesson cannot be done right. Humans learn more from what is not stated, but what is subtly communicated under the cognitive level than what is overt and magnified over the loudspeaker.

My father’s driving lessons have stayed with me, but what he wanted me to learn about the world has not. That is because I have learned how to learn; I have become critical about the lessons I accept just as much as the teachers transmitting them. They have sensitized me to the legacy of trauma that interferes with learning. The trauma that exists in students is real and palpable. When students come to us, we must be keenly aware that they do not come as a tabula rasa. They might be bearing the scratches, nicks and gauges of pain untold. We must be, above all, vigilant of the way we teach them.