“And I had a feeling that I belonged. I had a feeling I could be someone.”
As this quote from Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” evokes in its magnificent and haunting chorus, there is something about flying along in a car that makes you feel like you can leave what you know behind and do anything. While the narrator of this song does not drive the car herself, it is still the object that both literally carries her away from home and figuratively carries her into a new chapter of her life. One where she belongs. One where she can “be someone.” Like so many songs and stories describe, my coming of age coincided with the time I learned to drive.
It was my junior year of high school. I spent a great deal of time learning how to make a left turn across an intersection in less than a full minute and sitting in a classroom watching obligatory videos about how quickly you would die if you hit a tree going 55 miles an hour. When I got my license, I was apprehensive, having come to the conclusion that the only way to be safe was to live underground — far from any roads, for the rest of my life. While overcoming the fear instilled in me from Driver’s Ed, I was also facing another fear: My best friend had gone to Sweden as a foreign exchange student, leaving me to realize how few truly close friends I had. Just as I was experiencing driving alone for the first time, I was experiencing an increased loneliness in the rest of my life.
I don’t think that you can “come of age” without spending time alone, a theory supported by popular media. Look at Olivia Rodrigo’s 2021 song “drivers license,” in which she drives alone past places she once thought she would drive with her ex-boyfriend, taking away some of the power these places — and the breakup — hold over her. Or take Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film “Lady Bird,” where punky teenager Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, “Little Women”) finally leaves Sacramento for college in New York City. Only after leaving her best friend and family and experiencing the freedom of being alone, hooking up with a sophisticated man she hardly knows and getting so drunk that she ends up in a hospital, does Lady Bird realize she needs to change. In the final scene, she calls and leaves a message for her parents. She addresses her mom, asking if she felt emotional the first time she drove through Sacramento, because despite having known the city for her whole life, it felt different when Lady Bird first drove through it herself. It is in this final scene where she first calls herself by her given name, Christine, rather than using the moniker she chose for herself. Being alone for the first time intersects with her acceptance of her identity as her mother’s daughter, despite their strained relationship.
Unfortunately for me, junior year of high school was not an ideal time for isolation. I had a crush on someone and was too afraid of rejection to act on it. I instead fell down a pit of insecurities when hiding my feelings didn’t make anyone fall in love with me. I convinced myself that I was not good enough in any way, be that my personality, of which I was certain I had none, or my body. I became closed-off from the friends who were still there because I felt they didn’t care about me. The truth was, they didn’t know anything was wrong because I never said anything about it. I had never been one to talk much about my feelings, and until that year, that had felt like a strength. Suddenly, this trait isolated me and convinced me I had no one to talk to if I wanted to. Reflection makes it seem impossible that I let these very junior-year-of-high-school problems devastate me as much as they did. We’ve all been there. (Please tell me we’ve all been there.)
It was the friend in Sweden who I finally talked to. There was something about her distance that made it easier to throw all my problems in her face. I imagine it’s similar to the reason people can say hateful things on social media that they would never be able to say in real life. An irrational part of me thought my friend would be mad at me — for liking someone she was friends with, for being an emotional wreck, for not talking to her sooner — but what could she do from 4,000 miles away? I wrote an abhorrently long message in my notes app, beginning with an apology for sending it at a very late hour in Sweden time and ending, 17 paragraphs of self-indulgent spiraling later, with another apology, this one for unloading all of it onto her. While writing this for The Michigan Daily, I found the note, still on my phone, and the final sentence sums up my state of mind at the time: “Please just let me know that you aren’t mocking me or hate me unless of course you are.” I copied and pasted the whole thing into Snapchat, sent it and spent the rest of the evening stressing.
Needless to say, my friend did not hate me for being in a bad mental state. Instead, that message began a year of exchanging novella-length text messages. It turned out that it was also one of the hardest years of her life. Her host family was not what she had hoped, and several months into the year, her boyfriend broke up with her. This was the first time I realized that vulnerability invites vulnerability. When I opened up to her, she did the same, and despite being so far apart, our friendship had never been stronger than it was that year.
One day, I opened Snapchat to find a playlist this friend had made for me. Every song was sad. I loved it. The music matched my overdramatic desolation. I sent her a playlist that went from love to sadness to hope, thinking it might help her through her breakup. This became a new method of communication between us; later we transitioned from sad to angry songs like Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know.” It was those playlists that I listened to in my first months of driving by myself. They were the soundtrack to my coming-of-age movie. If “drivers license” had existed then, I’m certain it would have been on the lists.
Consequently, both “drivers license” and “Lady Bird” also involve getting one’s license. It is another part of growing up that inevitably involves more time spent by oneself. Lady Bird’s first time driving was the beginning of a shift to accepting her place in her family. The lyrics of “drivers license” illustrate how things look different after a breakup, but they also show how the world changes after learning to drive. For me, driving was the one thing I enjoyed doing alone. I could sing, I could cry, I could talk to myself and I could indulge in sadness over things I knew weren’t that bad, like when the person I liked liked someone else, and no one was there to judge me.
Symbolism in films and music can make a driver’s license or isolation directly cause a life-altering moment in which a person’s coming of age occurs. Maybe this singular moment of change is true to some people’s real-life experiences, but I predict that for most, myself included, it takes longer than that. The connection of getting a license to coming of age, however, is not exclusive to fiction. Driving a car presents a new, often unexpected perspective. This is obvious if you’ve ever driven a car, preferably while yelling along to your favorite songs with the volume up loud enough that you can pretend your singing is anything but terrible. The world rushes past while you propel yourself into the future. We use “taking the wheel” and “being in the driver’s seat” as metaphors often related to the newfound responsibilities of growing up, but doing so is also a step toward adulthood in a literal sense. A driver’s license is a marker of becoming an adult. Driving alone, I found the moving car to be a place of solace — a chrysalis in which I could sing and cry and emerge as someone different, someone who talked to her friends, allowed herself to be vulnerable and eventually, to be happy.
Isn’t that what “coming of age” means? A dramatic change in ourselves, one that typically helps us find ourselves so we feel like real human beings? Or maybe it isn’t as much of a change. Maybe it’s more about accepting who we already are. Maybe it’s Lady Bird calling herself Christine and me telling my friends I was depressed.
Toward the end of junior year, when things were getting better and I could count the weeks until my friend returned home, I watched “Lady Bird” for the first time, and Alanis Morissette’s “Hand In My Pocket” became my favorite song to drive to. If driving down the road while Morissette sings, “No one’s really got it figured out just yet,” understanding her but accepting it and enjoying every minute of it, doesn’t signify coming of age, I don’t know what does.
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at email@example.com.