The Beginning Of The Road
I still see him every now and then. The last time was at his garage sale a couple of years ago. He doesn’t remember my name but why should he? I was just one of thousands that he taught in Drivers Ed and it was forty years ago! I was in a class of strangers while he was doing something completely in his element. My memory of the events are vivid color photos while I’m sure his are black and white at best. Still when I tell Mr. Knight I was in his Drivers Ed class he thinks for a minute and then replies “you were from Portage Northern weren’t you?” “Yes” I reply and a slight smile comes on his face. I wonder if in the back of his mind some kind of memory is in there. Maybe he doesn’t remember the details but he may remember the struggles. Maybe he has got it categorized like those kids from Portage Northern really struggled with learning to drive that year. Somewhere very deep in his memory that he can’t retrieve is the story of Joe and I. Two struggling would be drivers that he has put in the almost forgotten category of “Struggling Student Drivers From Portage Northern.”
The reason that I felt like a stranger in the class at the beginning was because I was taking Drivers Ed a year later than most of my classmates. We were eligible to take Drivers Ed in the summer after we had reached our 15th birthday. I wasn’t able to enroll until I was 16. I had to make arrangements to get there since my dad was always working. I ended up riding my bike the eight miles to class each day. Class started at eight so I had to be on the road at seven to make sure I was there and recovered on time. It seemed like that most of the kids that year were from Portage Central. That made sense because it was their drivers training course that we signed up for.
We were informed after a couple of classroom sessions that we were assigned a driving partner and that we would all be on the range the next day. The partner that I was assigned with was named Joe. Mr. Knight must have paired us up because we were both from Portage Northern. Our high school was pretty big and even though Joe was in my year I didn’t know him. That summer as driving partners we got to know each other pretty well. It seems there are two or three types of Kids in Drivers Ed classes. The first group has probably driven cars (illegally) as often as they could. Unlike me these kids loved to give oral presentations in front of the entire group. They thrived to be recognized and have attention come their way. These kids were brimming with confidence and had that take charge attitude. The middle group had some of the same qualities listed above but needed help in bringing them out. A good teacher who recognized the talent within would bring them almost to the first groups level. Then there was the third group which is a group that at that time I put myself and Joe in. This group lacked confidence and didn’t want to stand out. We would rather not ever give an oral presentation. We were the ones that didn’t enjoy the spotlight. We were happy letting the confident glory seekers take the limelight.
Although I didn’t search for the spotlight I wanted very badly to learn to drive. The ability to drive is a giant step in being an adult! It’s a turning point where we start feeling grown up as we take on grown up responsibilities! On a personal note it is a way to get away! It’s funny but now there are times when my car might be in the shop getting fixed when suddenly I have the urge to do something. Forgetting for a moment that my car isn’t around I am suddenly caught with the reminder that I can’t do whatever it was. Suddenly I seem stranded and a hostage to the shops mechanics. I’ve also heard about older people rebelling when their drivers license is taken away. Just as it is important to get the license when we can’t drive anymore something very valuable is taken away. It gets to be a part of us and our independence and it hurts terribly to lose it. Going back to depending on others is a form of dying.
Joe was the perfect driving partner for me. We quickly became friends as we shared driving on the range. The range was a parking lot filled with plastic cones and traffic signs. The speed limit on the range was 8 miles an hour. At that rate it was thought that if we hit the bumper of another vehicle hopefully minimal damage would occur. Each day one of us would begin driving. At the appropriate time Mr. Knight would call out to us to switch drivers. Joe seemed like a happy kid and he had a smile constantly on his face. He had a good attitude and was very helpful. The most helpful thing we both seemed to need was someone to talk to as we learned the new skill. We always had the radio on while driving on the range and that was the year Paul Simon had a song out called “Kodachrome.” It was a song about a kid with a camera and the Kodak process made beautifully colored pictures for him.
Mr. Knight was the football coach at Portage Central (our rivals) for years. I remember a friend in 1977 wanting to go to the Pontiac Silverdome because Portage Central was in the state finals that year. This was two years after I graduated but I went because he had already bought the tickets. He was more familiar with the team as his brother went to that school. The only familiar face I knew was Mr. Knight, and I remember saying “their coach was my Drivers Ed teacher!”
It has to take a special person to be a Drivers Ed teacher. One of the greatest qualities that Mr. Knight had was patience. Having patience with young drivers is critical because driving is a skill that has to be developed. Encouraging words are needed and compliments are sometimes in order. Mr. Knight was real with his compliments. He used them sparingly, so when you received one you knew it was genuine.
I’m reminded of a movie I saw years ago called “License To Drive.” In that movie a brother and a sister were both taking Drivers Ed. The sister had a Drivers Ed teacher that was very easy. He always had her driving out in the country where hardly any traffic was. When the sister had to parallel park she was given a space big enough for three cars. The brother on the other hand had a drill sergeant type of instructor that took him into a busy city and made him squeeze his car into a parking space almost big enough for it to fit! Mr. Knight was neither of these types. He treated us equally and we both had to attempt the same obstacles.
After our original range experience Mr. Knight took Joe and I out for a lesson. At first he took us out in the country. When we drove out there the main thing was just to keep the car on the road. Every now and again we might pass a car going the other way, but for the most part it was sparse traffic. After each session Mr. Knight would go over our driving as we sat there in the car. Joe seemed to be picking it up faster than I was. Mr. Knight accused me (and rightly so) of not having the big picture. “The Big Picture” referred to the film about Mr. Smith’s driving techniques that we saw in the classroom. It was the technique of seeing everything when driving. Mr. Knight said that I was just seeing what was just beyond the hood. In retrospect I think I know what was going on. Here I was a kid lacking confidence trying to please a Drivers Ed teacher. I was trying so hard to be alert to everything, that I was not alert to anything. The multiple things like checking all of my mirrors, keeping the car straight, and watching out for everyone on the road was more than I could handle. Adding to it was Mr. Knight’s watchful eye and trying to do everything that he said. I was thinking more about what I was supposed to do when I should have been naturally doing it. It was like worrying so much about all of the positions that my body should be in at each part of my golf swing and forgetting to hit the ball.
Through the weeks of the class Mr. Knight had Joe and I drive through the city, highways, main roads, and even parking lots. After each session he gave us his summary of how we did. Each time Joe got better comments than I did. I just couldn’t seem to get my full concentration on the job with all of the things I was trying to do. Joe had his faults too and Mr. Knight scheduled us for a Saturday morning extra session. It was a last chance session because everyone else had already passed the class. I was thinking that I had to do better because I was definitely on the borderline of not passing. Although Joe struggled too, he had probably driven well enough to stay over the failure line. For me this final session would be the deciding factor.
We met early that morning and Joe was the first driver. In the few minutes that Joe drove we went all around recapping all of the driving situations we had been through in previous sessions. Within a few minutes we were taking the entrance to I-94. To this day I don’t know what went wrong with how Joe was driving. All I can tell you is that Mr. Knight had hit his brake and had Joe pull the car over. Sitting in the backseat trying to relax, the sudden stop caught me completely by surprise! I had expected Joe to be driving another 20 or 30 minutes and now Mr. Knight was having us switch drivers on the side of I-94!
Sometimes in life when we aren’t expecting something we don’t have time to think. I’m reminded of the rookie pitcher who doesn’t know he will start the game until just a few minutes before game time. Sometimes that is the best situation because he doesn’t over think the process. For some reason when I took the wheel on the side of the highway that day I drove like never before! I was in a driving zone and was alert to everything around me! I wasn’t thinking about Mr. Knight’s watchful eye. I was just in a concentration zone where I was doing everything right! Mr. Knight was very hesitant to turn on the radio with Joe and I. He figured that it would ruin what we should be concentrating on. After awhile as we drove on Mr. Knight relaxed back in his seat and turned on the radio! I don’t know what songs played but “Kodachrome” had to be one of them! The words of that song said how I felt as I was driving in the zone seeing the big picture that day! “Kodachrome they give us those nice bright colors, They give us the greens of summer, Makes you think all the worlds a sunny day!”
Mr. Knight had his final summary of our driving that day. To Joe he shook his head a little and told him that “I have seen you drive a lot better!” For me he said just the opposite “it was by far the best I have seen you drive!” It was a pass for both of us and we would both soon become licensed drivers! I’m sure that Mr. Knight shook his head and was relieved as much as we were! A good teacher pours everything they can into making their students a success and in turn our success (and especially mine) made him feel very successful that day!
Maybe that is how God feels when he looks down on us. He sees us struggling and wants to help. So many times we don’t grab his helping hand as we try to do things ourselves. We tend to like our independence much like what driving gives us. We might let everything else get into our thinking when we should be focused on him. Sometimes he brings circumstances into our lives to draw us nearer to him! Under these situations somehow the light goes on! Suddenly we come to know him and everything begins to become clear! It’s like my driving and at long last finally seeing the big picture! Much like the song Kodachrome’s lyrics “the world became like a sunny day!” Mr. Knight was a great instructor and unknown to him he gave me confidence! It came in an unusual manner as his sudden switch of drivers on the highway didn’t give me time to doubt myself. He brought out what I really could do by that sudden move. Sometimes it is the things we do that we think nothing of that are the most important. Unlike Mr. Knight or anyone else God remembers all of the experiences we go through. He remembers the time that we started the road to Christian living! He celebrates that time when it finally all came together! In his eyes it isn’t a black and white memory! It’s a living colorful one that he cherishes as much as we do! When we accept his gift of eternal life he puts us in the category of “Saved by Grace!” It is a beautiful immaculately colorful picture that he reflects on often and remembers forever and ever!