They come in pairs. One of each pair is quite a bit older, but they share the same features, coloring, and even style. Some are fashionistas, others are dressed for success and others look athletic. They share something else, too -- STRESS. Each member of the pair looks nervous, very nervous.
It's hard to believe that one member of each pair is a teenager, since the I'm-so-embarrassed-to-be-with-my-mom (or dad) attitude is absent. There they are sitting next to their parent, standing next to their parent, listening to their parent. For anyone who has ever raised a teenager, it's the oddest thing to witness. I thought I was in a sci-fi film as I sat there with my 16-year-old son and waited for our number to be called to the window. I was surprised he took the seat right next me and stood so close to me when our number was called.
It dawned on me just then that I was witnessing and participating in a rite of passage. What I had earlier thought of as a nuisance -- gathering all of his identification, taking off from work, driving to the 25th Street Shopping Center, sitting and waiting -- is a big deal, a very big deal.
Here, at PennDOT, he takes a gargantuan step toward independence. Here I will give him a few of the very last things he will need from me: a ride, a check for $34.50 made payable to PennDOT and, most importantly, my parental consent -- my signature that says I will soon allow this child, with his sweet little baby face barely recognizable under his razor stubble, but yet still there, to operate a motor vehicle and drive away to God-knows-where with God-knows-whom to do God-knows-what and he'll be sharing roads with speed demons, and mothers late for soccer practice, and texters and tractor-trailers.
Wow, is that a big deal! I have to admit I teared up twice right there at the window, right there in front of the man who processed the application.
The man knew, as did the men at the other windows, that this was a big deal. He was smiling which surprised me -- processing paperwork at PennDOT couldn't possibly be a fun or even pleasant job, could it? I looked around and noticed that they all were smiling. They could see the nervousness and smell the fear as parents forced themselves to let go and the children clung to them -- wanting their parents to speak for them, wanting their parents to be in control. But the man at our window directed his questions to my son, forcing him to take the necessary steps to independence and to speak for himself.
My son passed his permit test, and we stopped at the Nazareth Diner to celebrate but neither of us seemed jubilant. He wasn't even hungry. We both knew what was next and wondered when he would get behind the wheel. I drove home, and it was a good thing. As if on cue, a Chevy Blazer pulled out and nearly clipped us at at the intersection of Routes 191 and 248 just a few yards from the diner. Was that a warning to my son about being careful? Was that a message to me that I shouldn't let go too fast? (I have to admit, I had found solace in the box on one of the forms that said I could withdraw my consent prior to age 18 and his license would be suspended).
I tried to breathe the whole way home. When we pulled into our neighborhood, I pulled the car over and said, "OK, but go slow. You never know if someone is walking their dog." We practically smacked into each other at the rear bumper as we traded places but neither made eye contact or spoke. I sat in the passenger seat and bit my lip. He was good. He was cautious. He went slow. And, thankfully, no one was out walking their dog.
He got out without a word and went into the house, and I drove off to work with tears in my eyes.