By In Stuff

You are the captain

She is so scared. I can always tell when she’s scared; she has this look on her face, and it’s not so different from the look she had when she was three years old and we were walking through Times Square, and the crowd was overwhelming her. I reached down then and picked her up and slowly the fear drained from her face. She was happy again. I cannot pick her up now. She stares at the monitor, the one that shows who will be called next. D113. C149. E228.

I look at her card again. It is A102.

She doesn’t want to talk. Sometimes, when she gets like this, I can coax her out of it, talk about something comfortable and familiar that will ease her mind. In the days after she had her tonsils removed she was in so much agony and filled with such righteous anger about the unfairness of the world  that the only way I could get her to take the pain medicine was to sit with her, hold her close, and recite the names of Barbie’s 12 Dancing Princesses with her.

A is for …

“Ashlyn,” she would say.

Right. Ashlyn, then B is Blair and C is Courtney and D is  …

“Delia,” she would say, and she would drink a little of the medicine.

Delia. Edeline. Fallon.

“Genevieve. Hadley.”

I is for Isla. J is for …

“Janessa!” Elizabeth loved the name Janessa.

Then Kathleen and finally …


I look at her now and realize that the twelve dancing princesses probably won’t ease her mind. She was 6 then. She’s 16 now. This doesn’t make sense to me. While it was happening it made sense, mathematical sense, birthdays come every year, everyone gets that, she was three and then seven and then 12 and then 16, entirely logical, entirely predictable, and yet here we are, and it doesn’t make sense at all.

She looks at me. She is biting her lip. She’s going to fail again. She knows it already. All her life, I’ve tried to instill confidence in her. How do you instill confidence, anyway? Maybe you don’t. Maybe it is something you are born with. Our younger daughter tends to know that with enough hard work she can make the world bend to her will. I didn’t teach her that. I couldn’t have taught her that because I never felt it myself.

Elizabeth though — she is too much of her father’s daughter. She expects failure. She braces herself for it. The last time we came to get her driver’s license, I told her to believe in herself, told her that she is an excellent driver, a safe driver, and she would get it. She breezed through the driver’s test. She had the license in her grasp. The last turn was a left across a busy street into the DMV parking lot. Cars were racing by, and there was no opening, and she could feel herself beginning to panic. She began to think that the longer she stood at the light, the less that the tester thought of her. And then Elizabeth saw a crack, a chance to go, and against her generally conservative nature, she turned.

“Whoa!” the tester said, a nasty four-letter word for the person who is administering a driver’s test. The tester was apologetic but firm as she checked “fail” on the testing sheet.

After that, Elizabeth had a plan. The kids at school had told her that there was a super-easy DMV; every reasonably sized city in America has one. This was true too when I was 16. The other kids at school would tell tales of this driving place where the tester didn’t care how many mistakes you made, where they would give you the license even if you ran into a tree during your three-point turn, where they would take you for pizza and ask you to just pretend like you had been tested. The super-easy DMV was a good hour from our house. Elizabeth desperately wanted to go there.

We did not go there. There were no openings there, for obvious reasons. Instead, we came here. The hardest DMV driver’s testing place in town.

“Well, it’s the only one where I could get an appointment,” Elizabeth’s mother said. Well … yeah. There are plenty of openings here. This is the DMV where they give you the vision and street sign test while the other places just blow that stuff off. This is the DMV where they make sure to put you through the whole thing — three-point turns, U-turns, crossing traffic, weave through a cone slalom course at top speed, chase down Vin Diesel, make the car spin out three times and then have it skid neatly into a parallel parking spot.


She is so scared. This is about more than the driver’s license. It always is. This is about adulthood. This is about freedom. It’s easy to forget those contrasting feelings of being 16, the ferocious hunger for independence and the quiet but persistent wish to stay a child. Hold on to 16 as long as you can, John Cougar Mellencamp told us. Also he suggested suckin’ on chili dogs outside the Tastee Freez.

“Elizabeth,” a woman says. I look over to see the tester. It is wrong to judge anyone on first glance; however, it is clear from first glance that Elizabeth drew the sternest person on planet earth. We don’t use the word “stern” often enough. This woman looks like she was an actress hired to frighten teenagers. She is of an indeterminate age; I would believe her if she claimed to be 35 or 96. She looks like she barely remembers her last smile, not only because it was so long ago but because it’s a haunting memory she has suppressed. The tester begins to walk out the door without saying a word with the obvious expectation that Elizabeth would follow her. Elizabeth does follow and, as she heads out the door, she looks back one last time. She is so scared.

Elizabeth later told me the tester did not say a single word to her except “Please get into the vehicle.”

They are gone for a long time, much longer than the last time. I do not know if this is a good sign or bad, but I suspect bad. There used to be a football coach saying that when you throw the football, three things can happen and two of them are bad. As I do the calculations in my mind, there are three logical reasons why they are out so long:

1. As is this place’s reputation, they give a thorough examination.

2. Elizabeth hit a mailbox and they are repairing it.

3. The test is actually over, but the tester has been lecturing Elizabeth for the last 15 minutes.

Two of these are bad. The other one isn’t necessarily good.

Finally, they walk in. Elizabeth still looks scared. The tester tells her to have a seat, she will be called up in a moment. Elizabeth walks over and says, “I think I failed.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Well, I was doing OK. But then it came to that last turn, just like last time. And there was a lot of traffic. And there was an opening and I kind of panicked and I said to the tester, ‘Should I go?’ And she said, ‘Do not ask me that. This is your vehicle. You are the driver.’ I think I failed again.”

I nod. Confidence. How do you instill confidence? I think about how disappointing this is, how badly she wants to take that next step to adulthood, how dumb it is to ask the DRIVING TESTER if she can go. Panic makes dumbos out of us all. After a few minutes, we are called up to carry out a postmortem of this fiasco.

“Elizabeth,” the tester says. “You are a very good driver. You did everything well. But, as I told you in the car, you cannot ask anyone if it is OK to go when you are the one  behind the wheel. When you drive, you are the captain. Do you understand?”

Elizabeth sadly nods.

“OK,” the tester says, and then she does the strangest thing. She smiles deeply. It is like she turns into a whole other person.

“You pass,” she says. “You will be a very good driver, Elizabeth. Just believe in yourself.”

Elizabeth doesn’t get it at first. She stares blankly at the woman. And then she looks at the testing sheet, and she sees the word, “PASS!” written across the comment section, exclamation point and all. And with that, she starts to shake a little and her face blows up — it just detonates — and she lets out a sound I had never heard before, something like “MEEP!”

This happened four days ago. Each day since, Elizabeth has asked me for the keys to my car so she could go (1) buy groceries for Mom; (2) take her little sister for frozen yogurt; (3) pick up a friend and go to the mall; (4) pick up pizza for the family; (5) just drive around the neighborhood. I do give her the keys, this girl whose diapers I used to change, this girl I used to sing to as I rocked her to sleep, this girl I used to scoop up and carry when we walked in New York, this girl I read the Harry Potters books to, this girl … no, not a girl, not anymore.

And it hits me. It wasn’t Elizabeth’s scared face I was seeing as she waited to take her drivers’ test. It was my own.







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53 Responses to You are the captain

  1. Kit says:

    Dammit, Joe, it’s cold enough for tears to freeze in these parts.

  2. Michael says:

    As a parent of two fifteen year olds, this hit me in feels. Great piece, Joe.

  3. Rob Smith says:

    Great story! I think many of us still remember taking our drivers test. I still remember everything I got marked down for 40 years later! Your daughter will never forget this day.

    What’s also true is that once kids have licenses your relationship changes. They are no longer fully dependent on you for transportation. So, more or less, they can go where they want and do what they want without much monitoring. This is where it can get tricky with teens. But they have to go through this step and learn how to navigate their independence without going down the wrong road. It won’t be perfect, but it’s a big step towards become an independent adult.

    • Lee Carney says:

      I remember my driving test, it was the first thing I failed in my life, never even failed a spelling test before, i did not errr… React well 🙂

      I cried like a baby, so embarrassing

  4. GT says:

    Just wait till she goes off to college, Joe. That’s where it really gets scared-facey.

  5. MarkW says:

    I hope that someday — most likely not yet — your daughters will be able to receive these stories as cherished gifts and find as much pleasure in them as we the readers do.

  6. Jack Reidy says:

    As a father of a daughter who is about to have her own daughter, this brings a torrent of memories. They’re flash cards zooming by in my head. The stories you write about your daughters are touching beyond words. Brilliant writing, sir.

  7. Mike says:

    The best part of this story is the anticipation for when she uses the “Look at me. Look at me. I’m the captain now.” that this instructor so wonderfully set her up for. It might be via GIF, or she might do it in person when she’s driving and you’re a passenger, or some other context, but it’s going to happen and it’s going to be hilarious and glorious.

  8. Nickolai says:

    Another beautiful piece Joe.

    I’ve got two daughters as well, ages 7 and 5. I’ve repeatedly asked them to stop growing, but they never listen to me. Brats.

  9. Dave says:

    Eh. Trying too hard.

    The veiled suspense — Is it an illness? A court docket? They reinstated the draft? Then the reveal. Next, the dour DMV type. A sudden reversal, and smiles. Close with a psychological epiphany and a vague girl-power overtone.

    Careful, Joe. Your Albom is showing.

  10. dlf says:

    Thanks Joe. You should collect all of your posts about family. I enjoy your sports writing; I love your writing about family.

  11. Tom says:

    Such a great story. I’ve got two boys, 10 and 3. I’m welling up at my desk reading about Joe’s daughter. Time comes for us all…

  12. Scott says:

    This is one of the most heartwarming pieces you have ever written, Joe. That is saying A LOT.

  13. Dan says:

    YOu are a terrible terrible terrible person for making this curmudgeonly father of a 17 year old who just had an accident and called and in tears called me Daddy for the first time in 10 years get all the feels again.

  14. MikeN says:

    I didn’t ask can I go. I also saw no busy traffic. The tester failed me and said I was driving dangerously. I am pretty sure he made it up just to fail people, annoyed that I had passed his initial parallel parking.

  15. Dale says:

    I have a daughter who will take the driving test later this year. I’d like to find one of those “easy” testing stations in my area. But nicely done anyway, Joe.

  16. Scott says:

    I have no biological children but a few thousand students, past and present. One of them told me he was going for his test today. I am still waiting to hear or get sent a picture of his fresh license. It still troubles me anyone I knew when they were five can be licensed to operate a one ton hunk of plastic and metal.

  17. Robin Crossland says:

    Tomorrow I am taking my first born to the KS DMV Mission office for his permit test. You might remember that spot in KC? You’ve put a lump in my throat.

  18. Tom Flynn says:

    Congratulations to your daughter. First time I took my youngest driving, she hit a tree. Probably my finest moment in the role of father.

  19. robert says:

    My daughter’s license gave me a whole new reason to be proud. It also gave me a whole new layer of worry. You win some, you lose some, but overall the trip is worth it.

  20. Alice says:

    I failed the driving test my first time. Everyone did in my county (there was a dispute between state and county as to whether 16 or 18 should be the minimum age for getting a license, and the county “solved” the dispute by flunking 16 year olds). The second time I took the test (not in the neighboring county where it was easier to parallel park because there were no curbs), I passed. And I passed despite breaking the cardinal rule about talking to the tester. There was construction on the road next to the DMV parking lot, so that it was effectively single lane, and you had to wait, in my case a long time, to make the turn. So I asked the tester what they were doing and how long it had been going on. Most importantly, I didn’t panic. I think that was the moment I passed the test. I was sure when I was asked to parallel park behind a VW beetle (so much margin for error there!).

  21. Mosi says:

    46 years ago, on a snowy day like it is today, I took my drivers test at one of the ‘easy’ RMVs, at Town Hall the next town over where Mass Registry would give the tests once a month. Back out onto a road with a couple inches on snow cover drive about 1/2 mile, take a right down a slippery hill. At base of hill stop and make a 3 point turn, back up the hill, stop at stop sign, right turn, left, left then a final light into a parallel spot in front of Town Hall. I looked back into the back seat where my mom sat with a ascared look on her face. What did I fuck up was all that I could think… the registry cop signed and passed me my ‘pink slip’ I passed!!! ‘Nice car, but be careful on days like today, these aren’t good in the snow’ I took my drivers test on a snowy day in a 1967 Mustang Convertable

  22. Rick Akins says:

    Beaautiful writing as always, Joe. As the father of three thirty something daughters, thank you for this wonderful story and the memories it helped me recall. I can relate so much. Thank you for sharing your poetic and insightful writing with all of us.

  23. Paul Schroeder says:

    Great story, Joe. I remember when I failed the driving test. We sat in the car and the tester went through all the things he thought I’d done wrong, and then, after what seemed like an hour, said, “but the reason you failed…” The next time, after waiting 2 weeks, as was the law, I had gone back and driven all around that DMV office to make sure I knew it cold. The next instructor took me on a completely different route, but passed me, barely.

  24. KnucklesTheClown says:

    IDK this was kind of a crappy family story. They aren’t all gems

    • Lee Carney says:

      Its perfectly legitimate to think that, tho I disagree, but why do you feel the need to share your negativity with the world? Not every thought u have needs to be shared just because you can, especially when it is not positivity but instead negativity for no reason that you are spreading.

      I genuinely hope that whatever it is that is making u so unhappy changes soon and your life starts bringing you more joy, I say that genuinely from the heart, not passive aggressively I swear

      • KnucklesTheClown says:

        sorry man it just wasn’t very good.

      • KnucklesTheClown says:

        Lee Carney because I like Joe as a writer and I share good and bad opinions. They have a comments section and everything here to express that. His kid stinks at driving no matter how you dress it up is uninteresting, unnecessarily dramatized and not particularly interesting. 95% of the time I agree on Joe on baseball and sports in general but GASP I am allowed to express a thought to the contrary.

        Lee I’m worried that someone not appreciating a dull story about a driving test tells you that is a reflection on their happiness in general. Being objective about writing is ok. If I wrote a story about my kids first pooh and what a metaphor for our aging years and life and I cant believe how she is growing up blah blah. IT COULD indeed be a bad story. and that’s ok.

    • BleeboBaggins says:

      It’s true. This is sentimental tripe. They aren’t all winners.

    • Jake says:

      Hey Knuckles, looking forward to your masterpieces. Or maybe just shut your piehole if you don’t have anything worthwhile to share.

      • KnucklesTheClown says:

        aww I’m not fake crying or saying its dusty in here. Man that anger. Every family story aint a Pulitzer JAKE.

  25. Lee Carney says:

    Sort of a technical writing question Joe, u r so amazing at last sentences in your columns & blog posts, do u start the pieces knowing what the last sentence will be and work towards it? does it occur to you partway through and u steer towards it from there? with maybe some changes to the earlier writing to make it work or do these little gems occur to you as you start the final paragraph? Or is there another option I haven’t considered?

    On the off chance u read the comments I’d be genuinely interested in your answer, other readers theory’s would interest me too BTW

  26. Brent says:

    Funny how everywhere has its stories about the easy and hard places to test. I lived in Clay County, MO growing up (Kearney) and took my initial driving exam in Liberty (which is the seat of Clay County) and failed. My buddies told me that I head over to Platte County for my next test, which I did and I passed. I honestly don’t know if Platte County was really easier or just whether it was just psychologically easier because I thought it would be easier.

  27. Jerre Yeager says:

    I guess Knuckles the Clown has no heart. What a great article! Not only did I see myself as a 16-year-old again (I’m almost 70), but I saw myself again as the father of my two daughters as they were growing up and becoming young women. They don’t all have to be about sports!!

    • KnucklesTheClown says:

      I have a heart. It’s just the 50th time he has wrote the same story in the same format. I can only fake cry like the people on here pretend to the first 45 times.

      • KCJoe says:

        I don’t comment a lot on Joe’s site. You are correct in that you are entitled to your opinion and it is an open comments section. The only reason I comment here is your statement on the assumption that “the people on here” are “fake crying”.

        You think Joe’s family articles are formulaic and boring. You were not moved to tears by them. You say you have a heart. If these things are all true, then I hope you are not a father.

        Did you say the same thing about Stuart Scott’s ESPY speech? “Oh it’s been done. Jimmy V did it better.” or did that actually move you to tears? I don’t care if those speeches touched you or not but if they did then what you are not seeing here is the connection beyond the literature. I wasn’t moved to tears because of Joe’s style but because I have 2 children each 1 year younger than Joe’s. One will be taking that test in a year. One is very quiet when he is scared/nervous. I have my own techniques for breaking his silence and getting him to relax. I have said “be confident”, “don’t be nervous”. My son’s are as different from each other as Joe’s daughters are. I want nothing more than for him to be the captain of his ship. Sure it’s schmaltzy. It also happens to be real life.

        Just don’t assume that because a story that Joe knocked out in a couple hours, without the aid of an editor, and published for free didn’t meet your standards of literary greatness that everyone else is just “fake crying” and commenting to patronize Joe.

        I did cry…just as I did when I read about his daughter’s battle with Crohn’s, and swim team and Katie the Prefect, and even his first column about the birth of his daughter in the KC Star.

        When someone exposes their soul to you, have the decency to not take a jab at it.

  28. Reb says:

    Joe, I do enjoy your pieces about your daughters the most. Thanks again.

  29. Dave R says:

    I sent to my sister, and everyone else I know who has a daughter, or son, or family, or eyes. Thanks.

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