I often like to think of life as divided into four units. You spend four years in high school. Four years in college (at least). I spent four years in grad school. Four seems to be a good benchmark for me.
Almost exactly 8 years ago, I left the Ivory Tower. That’s two units of four, for those of you who are counting. I was not a happy camper back in 2004. In fact, I was nearly an entirely different person from who I am now. I had two Masters degrees but having spent 6 months applying to jobs with dedication and passion, I had not even been called for an interview. I was way overweight. I had been rather battered and bruised by my graduate school experience (that’s a story for another time). I was moving back home, which I felt wretched about. And on top of all of that, I couldn’t drive.
See, when I was 16 I wanted to learn how to drive just like every teenager does, but I knew that I would need special accommodations, assuming that seeing over the windshield was important. I called a driving school and asked if they’d be able to help someone like me and I got the curt response, “Well, we have some phonebooks.” Being 16, I took this as a ravaging insult that cut deep into my poor coal black heart, so I gave up for awhile. Then I came to the conclusion that I’d need to buy a car to have it adjusted, and lord knows I didn’t have enough money for either of those things. I was 25 and still had not cracked this nut. And now I was unemployed, unhealthy, living at home, and my college loans were coming due. It was not a happy time.
And then came Wally.
My mom scoured the phonebook (yeah…those things) looking for driving instructors that catered to the “not exactly normal” driver. I decided to call Wally. He came by to pick me up at my parents’ house. He had a red Pontiac and had all sorts of stuff in the trunk of the car – pedal extenders, pillows, books – anything a special needs driver could use. I told him I was not really comfortable with anything except parking lot driving, so he said, “Ok, we’ll go to a parking lot.” After a few laps of me driving in circles, he said, “OK, now I want you to drive home.”
Boy was I scared out of my mind. But somehow, Wally was like a fear sponge. He never EVER lost his calm, even when I came close to plowing into cars. And he perpetually picked on me, as I got better. “Oh, you sure you don’t want to just go back to the parking lot?”
After about 4 months of endless driving around orange cones, driving down streets, not understanding how to do left-hand turns, and all kinds of other torturous stuff, I passed both parts of my driving test and got my license. I could drive. I could leave one place and go to another, and I could do that whenever I wanted. Well, within reason. I had my freedom. I felt like an adult. I felt more normal. It was the beginning of a new beginning.
In a lot of ways, even though not driving is not technically life threatening, Wally saved my life. He gave me a bright shining light of possibility when there wasn’t a whole lot of that going around. Every time I drive, even now, I think about that man and what he did for me. And I think about the fact that I was just one of his many, many students. I wonder how many other people feel the same way about him that I do.
Wally taught me that there are lots of ways to save a person’s life. It’s not always sudden and super dramatic. Sometimes it’s four months driving around cones in the parking lot of an abandoned ghetto grocery store in an un-air-conditioned car in the middle of the summer. Maybe it’s something entirely different but equally unexpected.
Wally taught me to drive, but he also taught me that there are ways around every obstacle. I never thought I’d be able to drive.
What do you think you can never do? Whatever it is, you’re wrong – it can be done. It might stink working towards it. You might wanna quit a lot of times, and you might even have to pay a lot of money for it. But it can be done. And that person or those people who help you – they’ll look like lifesavers to you, even if the situation didn’t seem life threatening at the time.
And you’ll wonder, as I am wondering these days, how you could ever be so lucky and how you could ever show the depth of your gratitude.
Everyone needs a Wally. I hope you find yours.
Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tir_na_nog/3603202134/ via Creative Commons