The most heartbreaking day of my teenage son’s life came the day he turned 16.
This was the day he was to get his driver’s license, a rite of passage if there ever was one, especially desired when you are the youngest in the family and everybody is taller than you.
Indeed, there is much lead-up to getting the coveted event.
In our state, you are required to take 24 hours of classroom instruction; spend eight hours of drive time with a certified instructor; and practice driving 50 hours with your mom screaming beside you, her feet boring a hole through the dashboard.
You also have to convince your parents you’re ready, even though you’re (barely) 16, even though, according to anatomical and anecdotal research, your frontal lobes, where the rational decision-making skills reside, have yet to attach to the rest of your brain.
And so it was on the morning of Benjie’s birthday, that we gathered birth certificate, Social Security card and mettle, and drove to the DMV, where we crossed our fingers he wouldn’t get a mean test administrator.
“I can’t give your son the test until you get out of the car,” she said to me.
She was DMV-mean, but Benjie got his license anyway, leaving me no choice but to congratulate him all the way home. This was despite the images I was considering, of this particular 16-year-old boy released to the wilds this summer in our open-air Jeep.
Indeed, I had been in past years relieved when his older brother and sister voluntarily held off on independent driving until they were a slightly more settled 17 and 18. While Benjie may be an especially calm person and a slow and steady driver, he is also known for being in la-la land, a holdover, perhaps from reading the entire Harry Potter series 12 times.
And so it was that less than an hour after he got this hard-earned rite of laminated passage, I halfheartedly waved him away to the neighborhood coffee shop to meet his dad for celebratory lattes.
On his way, the happy, legally anointed birthday boy made an illegal left turn and ran a stop sign.
In front of a cop.
Who pulled him over.
“I’m sorry, officer. It’s my birthday, and I just got my driver’s license.”
Mercy rarely trumps justice in these cases. Despite the happy occasion. Despite the fact that in our state, getting ticketed for a moving violation within six months of procuring your license automatically means a reduction in privileges, back to a temporary permit, back to riding with Mom and Dad shotgun for an additional six months.
It apparently didn’t help his case, we were told later in court, that he had his cellphone in his lap. “Cellphones belong in glove boxes, not laps,” said the cop as he gave my son the dreaded yellow slip, leaving him no choice but to stand a few weeks later before the judge in his tie and ironed shirt, heartsick at his fate.
I was heartsick for him.
And then it occurred to me.
Instead of whipping around town this summer in the Jeep, my son will be six months older the next time he drives a car alone.
Instead of potentially losing his head, his head will be more firmly attached.
Of course, his having less freedom of movement means I am reduced too, back to driving him – or riding while he drives – to the varied events in a teenager’s life. It also means doing pickups, often late at night, often way after a middle-age mother’s bedtime.
But I’m beginning to realize six months is a small price to pay, even if it feels like a lifetime for a 16-year-old.
There is, after all, this: My son deserved that ticket. And the lesson. And his mother could use the six-month reprieve.