It’s my first lesson of the morning, but I’m already in a rough mood. Teaching seven or eight lessons day after day is like driving to Seattle and back on a daily basis. Given my random crop of students, it’s like spending each day with a series of cabbies whose skills you don’t quite trust. And most of the cars we use lack air-conditioning, so the summer sun that beats through the windshield melts the long pants I’m required to wear into my legs. When I get undressed after work, I feel like a snake that’s molting.
I’m checking out the wheels on my car while I wait for a new student. With my faith in fleet maintenance plummeting, I’m starting each lesson with an assessment of the tires and an inspection under the car for mysterious fluid stains on the pavement. Today’s assigned vehicle, a sad looking heap of dilapidated metal, is new to me, so we’re about to embark on our maiden voyage together. I have no idea where the red Mazda came from, and really don’t want to know. It’s probably up from New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. The car looks like something even a suicide bomber would reject.
I see a kid wearing an oversized NBA jersey and slinky nylon shorts shuffling towards me. As he gets closer I notice that his huge high-top sneakers are unlaced. This is one suburban white kid who’s having nothing to do with the standard attire of his town.
“You the teach?” he says.
I nod and look at his head. He’s got a baseball hat yanked down to the bottom of his forehead, so I can’t see his eyes.
When the second student shows up, the kid swings away from me.
“Yo Slice, wassup bro!” he shouts.
They slap a high-five and laugh. I wait for a break in their jibing and posturing to start the lesson, but they ignore my presence. A minute later I interrupt them and we load into the car. Slice loads into the back seat while his buddy slumps behind the wheel. The kid shifts the backrest on the seat toward the rear of the car and slumps, ghetto style, with one arm stretched out to the wheel. I manage to get his seat more upright, but he resists advancing to the vertical position, so we compromise on a quasi-gangster setting.
I get a glimpse of my face while I adjust the rearview mirror. I look like someone you could feed on Thanksgiving for a contribution of $2.16. I glance over at my driver and ask, “Ready?” Head facing forward, he responds by jabbing his right hand toward the windshield and saying nothing.
The kid pulls away from the curb aggressively, not bothering to check for traffic. I emphasize the need to steer with both hands and he grudgingly complies. A minute into our drive the kid drops his left arm off the wheel and resumes steering with his right. I’m about to correct this when a police cruiser passes us on the other side of the road. The kid lifts his left hand to the window, flicks two fingers forward, and says, “Mr. Baaacon.” He whips his head toward the back seat and glances at Slice, who laughs apprehensively.
“Okay,” I interrupt, “let’s keep our eyes on the road. And use both hands.”
The kid sighs theatrically and puts his second hand back on the wheel. Looking through the windshield he says, “Yo, got it.” He seems to be relishing the show for his buddy in the back. I decide to let the police comment slide, hoping he’s now got the need for posing out of his system. We continue rolling down the road. He’s actually a pretty good driver, though I notice that he prefers not to signal, probably as a means to retain street cred.
Ten minutes later we swing right at an intersection and start rolling down a four-lane road. My driver looks out his side window and stares toward the curb across the street. Looking past him I spot a woman in a tight blouse and skirt lugging a big shopping bag down the sidewalk. Still gazing through the window he says, “Yo, Slice, did ya feel the heat comin’ offa dat one.” Slice laughs, less hesitant than the last time.
“Okay, pull the car over, onto this road here,” I order. I jab my fist in the air, pointing to our right.
The kid swings onto the road, races up to the curb, and grinds to a stop. I reach down and shove the gear shifter into park. It’s silent for a moment as I compose my thoughts. I look over at my junior gangbanger, who turns his head towards me. I still can’t see his eyes and fight the urge to reach over and flick the hat off his head.
“Look,” I say sternly, “you’re here to impress me with your driving, not Slice with your comments.”
The kid tilts his head back and our eyes meet for the first time. He looks at me with dull indifference, like I’m a principal he couldn’t give two shits about. I feel like a flustered stepfather trying to deal with the resentment buried in some other guy’s neglected spawn.
“Okay?” I ask, softening my voice into a pleading, almost desperate tone.
Sensing that the gig’s up, the kid shifts to English and says, “Okay, yeah, got it.”
We proceed quietly through the remainder of the lesson without incident. I try to encourage my driver, periodically commenting on things he does well. He’s probably had fifteen years of adults focusing only on what he does wrong. A half-hour later we finish the lesson. I get behind the wheel and watch as the kid struts away with his buddy Slice.
One lesson down, eight more to go. I’m not going to last much longer in this job.