My most vivid memories of eighth-period biology class have nothing to do with water polarity, Watson, or Crick, but rather with Wranglers and VWs and Chevrolets.
I was a freshman that year, and seniors had the privilege of leaving school during last period if they didn’t have a class. So when the 2:05 bell rang, we freshmen would toss our books onto the desks and look out the window at the senior parking lot. The senior girls talked with each other for a while, then hopped into their cars and drove off. We’d watch this banal event until the second bell rang.
We stared at the Jettas and Jeep Cherokees that carried them away to wherever they wanted to goto freedomenviously. It didn’t really matter what kind of car they had, be it a Passat or a Pinto. Wheels were wheels. That they had their own means of transportationa way to get to school, sports events, partieswas the thing. Unlike us, they weren’t dependent on their parents to get around town.
Right around the time the seniors pulled out of the parking lot, the moms began to enter the after-school pickup line. School was over at 3:20 and, in an odd way, so was our freedom. The only places we’d be going afterward were wherever our mothers were willing to take us.
I was 15 years old, living in Mt. Juliet, and attending Harpeth Hall School in Nashville. I had always thought that being able to drive legally was cool. I had always figured I would get my driver’s license when I was 16, and hoped I would get my own car. But that year, as a car-less freshman with only a learner’s permit, it became apparent to me that having a license and access to a car was not simply a luxury in Nashville. For me and most of my peers, it was a necessity.
I had lived in Wilson County nearly all of my life, but for my freshman year of high school, I switched to Harpeth Hall. The commute between home and school in early morning rush-hour traffic was brutal. On good days, it took about 35 minutes. On bad days, it could take two hours. Each week, I spent anywhere from three-and-a-half to six hours being shuttled to and from school. Do the math over the course of four years, and the time spent in transit is staggering.
As I became more and more active at Harpeth Hall, the amount of time I spent in the car increased. My parents found that they not only had to drive across town to take me to and from school, but there were also play practices afterward, weekend class officer meetings, and other events. It was no longer clear where my schedule began and theirs ended. Parties, trips, and other social opportunities arose, yet I couldn’t always attend because my parents couldn’t provide the 40-minute commute into town. The stress began to affect the whole family. They were spending so much money so that I could have a private education, but at the same time, our dependency on driving limited that education. Eventually, my parents bought a Green Hills condo so that I would be close to school. I hated the fact that they had to run two households and readjust their lifestyle so that we didn’t have to commute.
Once I moved, turned 16, and got a license, I found everything changed dramatically for me. For starters, weekends no longer were limited to hanging out at the Green Hills Funscapewhich was where we spent Friday nights during my freshman year. I was freed from being dependent upon my parents. Not only did they not have to drive me everywhere, but now I could drive myself to after-school jobs. On top of freedom of mobility, now I had more financial freedom.
But this newfound freedom was very fragile. I hadn’t had my car for two months before my first fender-bender. With the car in the shop, my freedom was gone as quickly as it had arrived. A few friends managed to total their cars, which put them back at square one, too.
Recently, I spent three weeks in Washington, D.C., interning at USA Today. The USA Today office and where I was living in D.C. were the same distance apart as my Mt. Juliet house and Harpeth Hall, but it wasn’t a big deal. While it took me almost an hour to get from Mt. Juliet to Harpeth Hall through rush-hour traffic, it took only half that time to get from our hotel to USA Today via Metro. In the evening, there were no worries about wrecks or admonishments to avoid tickets. We had access to the entire city through the Metro. I had to adjust to the feeling that if I wanted to get somewhere, I could just go.
There are times when I imagine teens living in Nashville years from now, say in 2008, after the currently proposed light rail system has been put in place. I try to imagine how different their lives will be from mine: the access they will have to this city; the freedom to commute, on a whim, to and from Mt. Juliet; their independence from their parents; the option to take bikes on a train out to Franklin for a ride; the hundreds of dollars they’d save on gas. It may seem petty, but I envy them. Their teenage years will last longer than mine did, because they will not have lost that time driving between here and there.
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