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If my teenager devotes as much time and attention to preparing for and applying to college as she has plotting and organizing her efforts to buy tickets to see Taylor Swift, she will get in anywhere she wants with scholarship offers to boot. In fact she has said that she and her friends (both real life and online Swifties) are comparing receiving the magic presale code by text (required to buy tickets before the general public, if any are even left at that point) to hearing whether you’ve been accepted to your first choice school. Her excitement and anxiety around this concert tour have been enormous. She has said many times, “I am so scared.” As in, that we won’t get tickets, or maybe won’t get tickets for the right show, or won’t get good seats. The emotional intensity is palpable. I get it. This is someone whose music and persona she cares a lot about. I’ve certainly felt that way about musicians throughout my life. I know that problems, like gas or water, can expand to fill up all available room, regardless of their overall seriousness or significance. Hopefully we will be able to get the tickets tomorrow morning and all will be well. And between now and two years from now when she is actually applying for college, we will take lots and lots of deep breaths.

Meanwhile, we are also facing the superficially less dramatic but actually much more daunting prospect of her learning to drive. She and I attended a mandatory two-hour presentation about driver safety and education last week. Her school auditorium was filled with other sophomores and their parents and I wondered what was going through all of their heads. Here’s what I learned that night:

You’re no longer supposed to position your hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. Now 8 and 4 are recommended, so you don’t have to cross your arms when you turn and if the airbag goes off you’re less likely to sustain injuries from your arms being crossed, and to reduce fatigue from driving. I thought this was an interesting tip, and wondered why no one is making an effort to tell adults who have already been driving for years to change their habits. There’s also a new way you’re supposed to position your side mirrors to eliminate the blind spot and avoid accidents. I know if you have a newer car you have the fancy indicators that tell you when someone is close by in the lanes next to you, but I drive a 2010 minivan so I have no such luxury. There were actually a few driving tips that seemed useful and I wondered why adults are required to do so little to renew their licenses. Not that I want extra administrative hurdles in my life, but I am sure my driving has gotten worse and I could use a little refresher course. I guess that’s what I was getting last week.

Allegedly, parents have the most influence on teens’ driving habits. The presentation was heavy on telling us to get ourselves together to both model proper behavior when we’re driving and set the rules and to feel free to take away driving privileges. We are supposed to go through step-by-step driving lessons in the booklet they gave us, and log 45 hours of driving practice with our kids while they have their learners permit. And review and sign and make them sign various contracts in the back of the booklet outlining what they are and are not allowed to do and what happens if they mess up. That is all in addition to the classroom portion of driver’s ed they take during gym class, and the behind-the-wheel training they have to take with licensed instructors. No pressure. The driver’s ed teachers who were presenting emphasized the importance of establishing a bond with your children to effectively encourage safe driving habits. If you haven’t already established a bond by the time they’re 15 and 6 months, it may be a challenge to start now. The slide show also included a smiling dad and daughter sitting in the front seat of a car and advised us to leave our family problems at home when we practice driving, to make it a fun experience for everyone.

I wondered how kids who don’t have reliable parents, or parents who drive, or parents who own a car, are supposed to manage all this. Today as part of my job I was downtown meeting with DC Council Members and their staffs to discuss issues related to youth homelessness. Included in our group were three young adults who have experienced homelessness and are now advocating on behalf of themselves and their peers for tailored workforce development programs and mobile mental health services that meet their needs. One of the service providers mentioned that abundant driver jobs are available in the DC area, working for Amazon or FedEx or UPS, among others. And many young people she works with are eager to apply for the jobs, but they don’t have driver’s licenses because they grew up taking public transportation, and they don’t have parents available to teach them to drive, or cars to learn on. One of the young people said that the logistical barriers are so significant that many teens don’t bother with them, and drive anyway, often taking cars that don’t belong to them because they literally have no legitimate way of getting a license and buying and insuring their own cars.

Which brings me back to the driver’s ed presentation and the talk by the police officer. He was there, ostensibly, to talk about how to behave when you’re pulled over while driving. He did that, but only after he offered a lot of his own perspective on teens and driving and how judges where we live don’t like to see teens in court for traffic violations because the judges know the teens should know better and are very strict. All of it felt like a lecture designed to scare the kids, which it probably was. But it irritated me. Perhaps because this is not my preferred parenting technique and I am not a police officer and I know a lot of the people in the audience probably bristled the moment the officer walked up to the front of the auditorium. I should mention that the officer was Black, and at least half if not three-quarters of the young people in the audience were people of color. So the officer said that if you’re pulled over, you should roll down the windows and put your hands on the steering wheel where they’re visible. He said that if the officer asks for your license you should say, “it’s in my pocket, can I reach behind me and get it out of my wallet,” or “it’s in my bag on the passenger seat, may I reach over and get it,” or whatever the case may be, so you have permission to move. “So we don’t have any accidents,” the officer said. Which translates to, “so we don’t shoot you and kill you for no reason,” I guess. He said, “Be polite. When you’re pulled over it’s not the time to practice your trial lawyer skills. If you feel like the officer did something wrong, your parents can deal with that later. It’s your job to be polite.” Are your parents really going to sort it out later? Whose parents are going to do that? Maybe parents who actually are trial lawyers? The more he talked, the more I did not want to listen.

I am a middle-aged white woman who has been pulled over a handful of times for stupid things. Mostly I have avoided getting tickets, perhaps because I legitimately didn’t know my tail light was out, or I wasn’t actually drunk but just trying to get the hair out of my eyes with a barrette (that did actually happen). Maybe I just seem idiotic and pathetic when they pull me over because I get flustered easily. And I seriously didn’t know that it’s illegal to drive through a parking lot in order to get onto a different road if the traffic is bad. Did you know that? (I did get the ticket for that one, and as a result I was even later to pick my kid up from day care). I am acutely aware that I have never been racially profiled and no officer has ever pulled out his gun when I reached for my license or registration. My daughter will likely be treated the same way because she is white. Unfortunately some of her friends and some of the teenagers in that auditorium will not be. We have to do a lot more to change the way police officers behave or even at a more basic level how we approach and achieve community safety with or without police, so no one else who is unarmed, nonthreatening, and completely innocent, gets killed by a cop for any reason.

Our lives are not perfect or without challenges, but I understand how privileged we are. Listening to the stories of these young people today talk about times in their lives when they were trying to find a place to stay from day to day, without any support from family, was important. One of them, who is currently studying for the LSAT and trying to figure out her path to law school, was homeless for her final two years of college. Another talked about the value of his lived experience as a prospective employee. He wants to be a social worker and he can draw on his knowledge of earning his GED while incarcerated, having been part of the foster care system, and being a parent, to help others. He’s already doing that by serving on several advisory boards and speaking at meetings and events across the city.

I try to provide all kinds of fun and enriching experiences for my kids. I want them to be exposed to all kinds of things. But hopefully they will never have to know what it’s like to be homeless or involved in the justice system or profiled by the police. Hopefully I will be able to model good behavior when I’m driving so none of us will crash because we’re distracted or sleepy. Hopefully my daughter will get a job so she can afford the concert tickets and the merch and the meals out with friends and excursions to Starbucks. And we will all keep in mind that even when we struggle, we do it with privilege.

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