I am that 40-year-old loser in the Larry’s Driving School car. The one driving with the instructor beside her, the one trying to ignore the gleeful teens giving her ironic thumbs-up and catcalling from the sidewalk. The one who never really, desperately needed her license until now, and who now really, desperately does.
To get into this car, I had to endure two heinous bootcamp weekends in a Larry’s Driving School classroom last year listening to a chainsmoking, hungover teacher explain the rules of the road to me alongside a dozen sullen, stinky high-school students (also hungover) and a couple of veteran lawbreakers forced to show up. So I am relatively happy to be the loser in the car because it means I have graduated from being the loser in the classroom, and because my hours in this car may make it possible for me to finally … drive. Legally. Unassisted. Like a big girl. With two kids. Yeesh.
Anyhoo. My mortification is not the intended subject of this post. What is is the salve for it: my Yoda-esque driving instructor, Param. Param, a bearded 70-year-old former helicopter pilot (in his native India) with a pulse rate of about 20, didn’t blink when I ran a stop sign on our first outing, when I threatened to speed through a busy intersection on my second, and when I nearly stole the right-of-way of a motorized wheelchair on a turn just a few days ago. During these episodes he smiles patiently and calls them my “learning,” noting serenely that “knowledge is power.”
Param is a philosopher as much as he is a driving instructor. Driving well, he tells me, is “an effort of body, mind, and soul.” When I point out a tailgater, he says, “This is not your problem. It is not your blood pressure shooting through the roof. You are calm. They are not. This is too bad for them.” He does, however, applaud my desire for greater space between cars. In fact, he says, we need greater space in all things: “When we have space we have time to reflect. We do not act emotionally. We have the distance to act in our best interests.”
To my complaint that it feels like we’re driving like slugs in a residential area (speed limit 40 km/h), Param says, “More time to enjoy yourself and the scenery.” When a car in front of me blocks my way and there's a chance for me to go around him, he wonders, “Do you really care about ten seconds so much? Will it make a difference to your day?”
When I asked Param how he got so Zen, he told me that he was born this way. “My mother asked the doctors to keep checking on me when I was in the hospital because I was so calm she didn’t believe I was really alive.”
Though he may be quiet, Param has lots to say. As you will have gathered, our driving lessons are as much contemplations of life as they are rote lessons about parallel parking and safe following distances. Our last session together is a perfect example.
I was rattled, and Param knew it the minute I dropped into the driver’s seat. It took about half an hour and about five egregious mistakes before I apologized, explaining a little about the stresses on my mind, including my dying cat and the sheer cumulative exhaustion of my year post-spinal-cord-injury avec newborn and toddler. It was a bit heavy for a chat with your typical driving instructor, but Param hardly fits this description. True to form, he came back with a response that required me to intensify my grip on the wheel and my sense of my surroundings, so taken was I with his words.
“None of us escapes in life,” he said. “Every one of us receives a piece of suffering; some more than others, but each one of us nonetheless.”
“Life will have its way with us, and to a certain degree, there is nothing we can do about it,” he continued. “But there is always something within our control. One of the most important things we can do in life is to understand what is in our control and what is not, what power we have to change things. Some people instinctively know this, and others learn it. The unfortunate never do understand this truth and are always in the position of victim.”
Param then gently advised me to get some rest and let up a bit on myself. Then, as he always does, he drew back from his life philosophizing and applied it to the task at hand: driving. To be precise, defensive driving (all drivers have a certain amount of power to protect themselves against others’ mistakes). His segue brought me back to the road—and to the hell task of lane changing—a little less jumpy and fearful.
You never know when you’re going to meet someone extraordinary, or how.