Like many milestones that make their anticipated entrance throughout adolescence — among them the first kiss, first date and the other usual suspects — my first time driving was awkward but wholesome. After months of tedious driver’s education coursework and haphazardly prepared traffic sign note cards, I was finally ready to take to the road. Per Indiana law, I was required to supplement my online driver’s ed with a handful of driving lessons — the last step before I would finally be able to make the coveted march into the Department of Motor Vehicles and take my driver’s test.
Most of the kids in my grade took driver’s ed from the same online academy, so the program’s pool of driving instructors had become a sort of cast of characters often gossiped about between the drivers-to-be. In geometry or English class, I would hear the latest tale of the frizzy-haired instructor who spent the majority of the lessons ranting about her relationship problems, or about the pale-faced man who kept his clammy hands gripped around his clipboard during each drive. As I listened to my peers exchange lesson anecdotes like cigars in a boys’ club, I was eager to graduate into this sphere of driving adventure.
And then my time finally came. My mom offered me a swift “good luck!” before dropping me off in my high school parking lot, where my instructor would soon take me out for my first lesson. I was met by a friendly older man clad in a gray windbreaker and black slacks, standing in front of a silver car plastered with driver’s ed logos. He had a wispy mustache, the kind that reminded me of my grandfather. After firmly shaking my hand with the seriousness of a business deal, he gestured me towards the driver’s seat — the seat. The star of today’s outing.
“You can call me Clarence,” he said, buckling his seatbelt and fidgeting with the paper and clipboard in his lap. I glanced at his handwriting, which was scribbly and hurried, like a substitute teacher’s.
“Ready to finally take to the open road?” he asked.
I offered a reluctant nod before turning the keys in the ignition, prompting a low, growled rumble from the vehicle and a pang of excitement in my chest.
I was driving.
Often heralded as the epitome of freedom in a country long claiming to be the land of the free, we’ve come to believe there is something sacred about the first time an American gets behind the wheel. The sensation of taking the open road, hands gripped onto a leathery steering wheel, basking in the power of utter control: We’re driving towards an idealistic future only American-born individualism can breed.
Surrounding media has branded this kind of experience as one of “adventure” and “exploration,” supplemented by commercials of sleek Jeep Wranglers and beastly SUVs shown conquering rocky terrain. And towards the end of each advertisement, a gritty, all-American narrator tells you this automobile is for trailblazers, the American pioneer — the white-colonial, anti-indigenous narrative blazes red, white and blue in the advertisement’s final remarks. To own a car is to assume the tropes that have long defined what it means to be American: To charge (or drive) boldly in the direction of the American dream, and a rugged conquest awaits.
The archetype carries into literary manifestations as well: Arthur Miller’s 1949 stage play “Death of a Salesman” casts protagonist Willy Loman’s American-made Chevrolet as the principal symbol of his enduring struggle to realize the American Dream. In the climax of the piece, Loman drives the car out into the darkness, ultimately leading to the termination of his life and the figurative death of his ambitions. And in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby,” the titular character’s Rolls-Royce is drooled upon by narrator Nick Carraway, who prizes the “rich,” “triumphant” vehicle as the ultimate sign of luxury, wealth and success.
It wasn’t until I purchased my first car that I began to truly reflect on how these tropes of car ownership as freedom, as American individualism, as wealth deeply affected me as a teenager.
I was a young person with the license to drive but nothing to drive with.
The process of changing that title started a few days into this winter break. My best friend from home had just driven me from Ann Arbor to Indiana, and I was soon due back up to northern Michigan, where I would purchase a well-loved Chevy from my uncle.
Like most used vehicles, the car was bestowed upon me along with a list of imperfections, including a leaky gas tank that needed to be examined right away. My first few days of car ownership were littered with trips to AutoZone and my dad endearingly poking at parts of the engine to ensure everything functioned properly. Finally, after substantial analysis, I was cleared to drive the car back home, where I was eager to accessorize her with all the essential features: an aux chord, a pine-scented air freshener and feminist bumper stickers. (To my dismay, my mother vetoed my “Keep Your Laws Off My Body” sticker for a fear of it provoking other drivers on the road against me).
Almost immediately, I formed an oddly admirative connection with this car-turned-friend, and I knew I wanted to name her. Her slightly-dented black exterior and silver detailing inspired me to go with something mysterious, like a wise old witch who had lived a hundred lives before this one. After lots of deliberation with friends and family, she was named Svetlana.
After the arduous process of transferring the title of the car then registering it in my name, I was finally able to take to the open road in my own car. I quickly classified myself as a car owner as if I’d been promoted to some imagined, glistening sphere of superior beings. But why I felt so prideful to be cruising with the Gatsbys of the world, I did not yet fully recognize.
In the weeks following Svetlana’s adoption, when I would drive around the streets of my hometown — a picture-perfect suburb tucked north of Indianapolis — I found myself surveying the same flurries of Jeep Wranglers and BMWs I was once so accustomed to seeing. I remembered high school: countless, dewy mornings vibrating with the excitement of these sleek vehicles buzzing through the parking lot. And the dreaded seventh-period-bell that emancipated those lucky license-carriers to their same cushy wagons, with me pitifully departing on foot.
I remembered all the weekdays that began with one red-nosed walk to school — in rain, snow, slush, sleet and sun. That one, short commute felt hours long as I fixed my gaze towards the ground, attempting to avoid eye contact with anyone who might pass by and pity the upperclassman with no car to drive.
The end of the school day proved more difficult; the street parallel to my high school was always immediately flushed with a parade of student traffic in the minutes following the final bell. This meant crossing a stampede of student drivers, all with their car radios blaring, windows down, sitting cool with a kind of eased cockiness all upper-middle-class kids seem to inherit. My task was simple: stay on the sidewalk and wait patiently for an opening in the mass of vehicles to make my pattering escape to the other side of the street. But in high school, in front of those drivers, the endeavor seemed disastrous, fatally embarrassing even.
I then thought of my junior year, when my brother and I shared a used 1995 Ford Mustang during its last months before it broke down. I thought of all of the times I sheepishly avoided driving friends so they wouldn’t see my rickety pair of wheels, the small convertible cowering in comparison to my town’s brigade of SUVs. During after-school hours, I made sure to borrow my parents’ nicer, newer car when visiting friends’ houses, my body tensing at the thought of my decrepit Mustang acting as the sore spot of some Crest-white neighborhood made up of brick mansions and money-green lawns.
Recalling these things meant confronting a brutal classist ideation I had long carried since high school: a fear that my peers would know my family wasn’t as wealthy as theirs.
In retrospect, I feel a little ashamed knowing that I grew up in this cushy suburb, went to a well-funded public high school, had a loving family, a warm home and so many other privileges yet still engaged with the hallmarks of class envy, treating a stroll to school like a walk of shame.
And truthfully, acquiring my first set of wheels proved to be as underwhelming as anything my adolescent self once treasured, the first kisses and the prom dances and the homecoming games. The transaction was not magical; It did not grant me some kind of divine confidence I once thought was only earned via a breezy drive to high school. It didn’t make me prettier or richer or more of an adventurer.
And therein lies the issue created when American-brand industrial efforts are intensely amplified by streams of literary and media messaging. To me, to us, a car has always been more than a car. It is a vessel with which we conquer new terrain, like colonizers on wheels. It is a throne on which we display wealth. It is a launchpad from which we reach for some vastly unattainable version of ourselves. And for whatever reason, it took finally sitting behind my own wheel to see that all of these things a car is ‘supposed’ to represent fizzle down to nothing. The view beyond the wheel is no grander than it was before. The only thing that’s changed is the girl who once took her first driver’s lesson, who grew up a little bit the day she bought her first car.