I got my license the day I turned 16, as early in the morning as I possibly could. I had been dreaming about the freedom of driving since I was a 6 year old living in Austria, where my love of cars first developed. In the State of New Hampshire, where I was to be licensed, any 16 year old looking to legally drive was required to complete a state-regulated driver's education course. I signed up for the course when I was 15, so that it would be completed before my birthday. Before signing up, I didn't realize how profound of an effect it would have on me.
The class consisted of 14 individual classes that took place every week for 14 weeks. The instructor of the class was a middle-aged guy who was in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. He looked like an aged rocker, long hair and all. Anyone who had taken the course knew about him as it was the only independently owned school in my city at the time, so we knew that the class would be taught by someone in a wheelchair. Strangely, when they described the instructor and the course, they always included a strange and cryptic disclaimer; "Just wait until the 11th class," they would say, almost verbatim. What was so special about the 11th class, however, they always refused to answer no matter how hard I pressed.
So the classes commenced, and my anticipation of what I was to experience in lesson 11 kept building up as the weeks went on. We learned about the rules of the road, vehicle safety features, and, in quite an entertaining way, the importance of checking your blind spot before making a turn with a "head-check." After explaining the reasons why they were necessary, the class had to chant out in unison "HEAD-CHECK," and the instructor would reply "Then what?" and we would chant "DOUBLE-CHECK," no fewer than a dozen times. Needless to say, the lesson proved effective for me, and I now crane my neck to check my blind spot every single time I'm making a lane change. Each class would be peppered with the instructor's personal stories, which were funny and entertaining. He had been a trouble-maker when he was younger, and had no shortage of tales of wild excesses from the 70's, which he made sound so wild and lawless that I wanted to buy a Chevelle and rip down back roads while listening to Eric Clapton.
Finally, the 11th class was upon us. We would now have a chance to experience what it was that past students felt was important enough to keep in strict confidence. As we filed into the classroom somberly, everyone knew that the day's lesson would be different, and the mood was subdued. A normally talkative bunch, we sat hushed as we waited for the class to start. The instructor joined us in the room, and without saying a word, turned the lights off and turned on the overhead projector for a slide show. Everyone sat silently as the first slide popped up, showing a high-tech rotating bed, the same one used by the character played by Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. And so began the story of how our instructor had become permanently confined to his wheelchair.
He had woken up in the bed not remembering what had happened. The bed rotated frequently in order to drain fluids, and perhaps to help his circulation. His family had showed up to tell him what had happened. He had been in a motorcycle accident. He was lucky to be alive, but the doctors said that he would never have the use of his legs again. He began to piece together the days leading up to his accident.
An avid motorcycle rider, the instructor had frequently pushed the limits of his bike. He lived the fast life, both on and off the road. Days before the accident, he had been introduced to a fellow rider by a mutual friend, who had said that they would get along well. The rider kept asking to ride together, but the instructor hadn't wanted to at first. He finally agreed to ride, and at some point they settled on a day. The instructor said he could very clearly recall the night before the accident how his legs really hurt, and felt a sensation in them that he had never felt before, implying that it was a sort of premonition. The day of the ride, he had felt uneasy, but decided to go anyway.
The two riders weren't riding slowly when they came upon a bend in the road. Somehow, the instructor's bike lost traction in the turn, and he was flung into the air, landing headfirst on a large rock. He said that one of his family members was several miles away and had heard the sound made by the force of the impact. He pulled out from behind his desk the helmet he was wearing during the accident, and it was deeply cratered on one side. He told us how when the paramedics removed it, they dumped out what seemed like a gallon of blood that had pooled inside.
The class sat there transfixed as he told us how difficult his life had become as a result of the accident. He looked us in our faces and told us that he wouldn't wish his own fate on his worst enemy. But he also told us that fate had brought him to us, and to this job, and he felt obligated to teach us about safe driving, and that all he wanted to do was make some sort of a difference in someone else's life when it came to vehicle safety. His eyes welled up with tears when he was telling us this, and it would have taken a cold heart to not be moved by his raw emotion.
The classes ended, and I passed my driving test as planned. I can't imagine that anyone else teaching a driving course could have made the same impact on students as the instructor. I saw him outside the building where the classes were held for several years after, quietly smoking cigarettes in his wheelchair as a new class of students who looked younger and younger every year stood outside waiting for the lessons to start. Then one day he was gone, and I haven't seen him since. When I was in High School in the years that followed, I would occasionally hear people talking about starting driver's education classes, and if I was in the conversation I would always find myself saying, "Just wait until the 11th class."
Ken Kupchik is the Director of Content Strategy for MechanicAdvisor.com, a resource for connecting people with the right mechanic.