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Wright Words: The parallels of drivers education and life

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 21 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Oakli Shane Wright sets off on her first solo drive.

Kodi Wright Photography

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It’s no secret my hair has been going gray for years, but it appears this week the color has lost its pepper and gone totally salt. In the blink of an eye — or, more precisely, in a nervous twitch — my hair went from George Clooney without the good looks to Albert Einstein without the brains.

The culprit isn’t a secret, either. It is one of the most frightening phrases to a parent: driver’s license.

My oldest daughter, Oakli, age 6,103 days, successfully completed drivers education, dutifully drove her state-mandated 45 practice hours and passed the big road test.

It’s an experience I’ve worried about since day one.

Oakli was born at 7:21 a.m. on Dec. 6, 1995. The phone rang at my wife’s bedside 30 minutes later, and we learned that her older brother and only sibling, Shane, had been killed in a car accident near Boise. It wasn’t his fault and he was, by all accounts, an excellent driver. But death doesn’t discriminate and sometimes the young die, no matter how skilled and careful they might be behind the wheel.

The morning and the mourning were the very definition of the term "bittersweet." My wife’s tears of joy and sadness streamed together, and for days I struggled to know which were which. I remember watching her complete stacks of hospital paperwork and, with the inspired stroke of a pen, she finally smiled as our baby with no middle name became Oakli Shane Wright.

We’re horribly biased, but we think she wears his name pretty well.

With license in hand, and a smile so big it was visible by the new Mars rover, Oakli made a first serendipitous solo trip to her grandmother’s house across town. How fitting that she went to visit the woman who bore her namesake, Shane, and who placed that devastating call 16 years earlier when Oakli was mere minutes removed from heaven.

I thought of all the lessons we’ve shared as Oakli rolled away from our home and out of sight.

Her mother and I have taught her to never start the car without her seat belt on and to insist others in the car are riding safely, too. We’ve also asked that when her seat belt is on, her cell phone is off.

We’ve discussed the importance of reading and obeying traffic signs and signals. With study and repetition, she now knows what they mean and why each one matters to her.

Together we’ve driven many miles practicing her ability to "play the wheel" and stay inside the lines. She’s learning that small adjustments are necessary, even if the road appears perfectly straight.

It’s tested my patience, and perhaps the imaginary brakes on the passenger’s side of the car, but she’s learning to pass slower vehicles with confidence and to be wary of reckless drivers. It will take practice, but we pray she’ll grow to quickly identify potential trouble and to steer clear.

Merging into heavy freeway traffic has also been an adventure, but with practice she’ll learn to hold her own. Hopefully, Oakli will soon accept that she belongs on the road just as much as anyone else and that the pavement doesn’t know or care if she’s 16 or 61.

Oakli has also learned how and where to safely park, and, if she’s patient and continues to work at it, I’m sure one day she’ll parallel park like a pro.

I confess, perhaps not surprisingly, that I thought of her nonstop while she made that maiden voyage alone. Had we taught her everything she needed to know? Was she ready? Would she make it safely home when the time came?

The colorful moment and the memory inspire me to wonder.

What if we received a handbook before coming to Earth? Did we practice driving the straight and narrow with one another? Did we memorize road signs and learn to navigate? Did we have a chance to listen and learn from someone who had gone before?

Did God consider whether we’d been taught everything we needed to know? Did he wonder if we were ready? Is he worried whether we’ll make it safely home when the time comes?

I don't pretend to know the answers and I'm not suggesting a doctrinal breakthrough, but I do know that I will be anxiously watching my child grow and learn and hoping above all else that each time she ventures out, she returns safely home.

As for that grey hair, by the time my three more young drivers get their turn to learn, I may not have any hair left to worry about.

Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of eight books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The Wedding Letters." He can be reached at feedback@jasonfwright.com or www.jasonfwright.com.

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