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Driving Lessons: Knowledge From Behind the Wheel of a Car

 It’s 6:50 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Much earlier than I wake up for classes.  My alarm clock screams in my ear. I hastily pull on sweats, grab my permit, and stumble down the stairs and out the door of my dorm knowing I am already late. I can see the red car plastered with stickers from Liberty Driving School waiting for me in front of the Main School Building. I know that Nekke, one of the most eccentric people I have ever met, is waiting for me. I pull open the door and slide into the back seat next to a boy about my age with greasy hair and the distinct odor of a habitual smoker. “I’m Haley,” I say. “Jake,” he replies. “Ian,” the boy behind the wheel says over his shoulder. “We thought we were gonna have to wake your ass up,” Nekke jokingly scolds me.

The car is filled by Nekke’s chatter as we pull out of my Deerfield, and into the Franklin County that my three companions know.  Main Street quickly becomes the back roads that wind past road-side farm stands and old tobacco barns. The conversation turns to cars and suddenly the boy beside me, silent until this point, perks up.  Nekke spits out a stream of car jargon and I am instantly lost. Jake, however, seems to know exactly what she is talking about. “Yeah, we had to build a carburetor in shop this week.” He and Nekke go back and forth discussing the car he is building in his shop class. The fast pace at which this car is being built catches my attention. I ask him how he can get so much done by only working in class. He explains to me that he goes to Franklin County Tech, a vocational school. He tells me, with pride, that he only has classes every other week and spends the weeks in between working on his car.  He can name every part of the car and can even build some of them himself.  His dull green eyes light up when he begins to talk about his hope to be a mechanic. “You know all about trucks too, dontcha,” Nekke encourages. And he goes on and on about his father’s truck. 

This boy is just one of the many faces I have seen, one of the many stories I have heard, inside a Liberty Driving School car. One girl enlightened me to the workings of the public school bus system. Another boy complained about how the cops had shown up at a party he was at the night before.  And one girl said very little, but she voiced without words her complaints about raising her two younger brothers while her mother worked two jobs.

Sometimes I think Nekke forgets I am a DA kid. Once, as I turned the key, I could see in her face she was furious about something. Without prompting, she flew into a rant about a certain boy, I knew instantly who he was, who spoke to her with such a sense of entitlement that she wanted to, in her own words, “ring his neck.” She continued in her outrage to tell me about what a piece of work his mother was. I knew from experience that the best response to these stories was to smile and allow her to vent. I know these kids. And I know that they would never speak that way to a teacher or coach. But I guess Nekke is different because Nekke isn’t connected with their Deerfield. Nekke isn’t a part of their world.

Deerfield surrounds us with others just like ourselves. We come here, into a world of privilege, and most of us choose to ignore the roads we travel to arrive. Most of us make the journey with our heads bent over the screen of an iPod or cell phone, not noticing what passes by our windows. Yet this bubble of wealth and privilege lies in the middle of some of the worst poverty in the state. Across America those of privilege seldom realize just how privileged they are. Their attention is never drawn to the family struggling to get by or the children who might not get all of the toys on their wish list this Christmas. Most Americans, like the students arriving on campus, will bend their heads and pretend not to see. They rush by, hurrying off to their important lives.

Ironically, not until I came to Deerfield was I able to witness such poor neighborhoods first hand. Not until I came to a place of unimaginable wealth did I truly see poverty. And like many Americans, most students here don’t realize what they are seeing. But my advice to all of you is this: next time you get into the Liberty Driving School car, or take a cab into town, or even order food at Mesa Verde, take a moment to listen to what these people are saying to you. Listen to their stories because the most important lesson I have yet to learn at Deerfield was not taught to me by a teacher in a classroom; it was taught to me by a kid behind the wheel of a car.  

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