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The Earnheardts | Learning to (really) drive. Again

When COVID hit, I found the open road again, reminded of what it’s like to feel free and alive.
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The Earnheardts: Clockwise from top: Mary Beth, Katie, Sadie, Adam, Ozzie, and Ella.

Sharing a house with four kids is, in many ways, a wonderful experience. There’s always something happening. There’s always laughter and play. There’s an occasional tear accompanied by an opportunity to swoop in and play hero dad. There are communal meals where we catch up on each others’ lives. There’s always someone you can talk into watching a movie or playing a video game with you. 

It’s a blessing to be surrounded by people. 

The flip side to the joy of being surrounded by “these” people is the frustration of never being alone. When we’re all home, I am often reminded that I’m responsible for the well-being of others. There’s an appointment here, a lesson there, a forgotten item for school, a drop-off at a friend’s home. There are endless “to do” and “honey do” and “been-meaning-to-fix-that” lists that are often jumbled together in a quantum conundrum that only a particle physicist could untangle.

Okay, maybe it’s not that complicated. But forget being alone. Sometimes I just want to be with my wife in the same space with no one else around. Yes, of course we share a bedroom. But when our heads hit the pillows these days, we’re out for the count. No time to check in, to catch up, to chitchat. It’s turn on Comedy Central, hope for a rerun of South Park and be out before Cartman says something horribly inappropriate. 

Before the pandemic, Mary Beth and I managed to find moments of escape when the kids were at school and on play dates. During the lockdown, these kid-free moments mostly disappeared. 

So, like most couples stuck sheltering in place with their kids, we coped. Instead of going out to lunch when the kids were at school, we hit the road. We loaded a cooler and went for a drive with no particular destination in mind. We took to the back roads of northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania. 

Our car became my new favorite hangout. What might have been a midlife crisis brought on by a global pandemic was mitigated by a road trip revival. 

Spending time behind the wheel came naturally for me. For many years, I was on the road doing admissions work for the University of Pittsburgh and, later, Clarion University of Pennsylvania. I logged thousands of miles from the Midwest through New England. I had a routine. There were favorite websites for downloading maps (Mapquest, anyone?), but mostly I didn’t care if I got lost. It was part of the adventure. There were recurring thoughts of “Wow, no one really knows where I am right now.” 

Being alone on the road was as freeing as one would expect, but it also came with a sense of power.

When I got out of admissions and got married, my wife and I travelled I-80 twice a week for three years while we studied at Kent State. These were great drives full of conversations about our shared future, occasional arguments and frequent debates about ideas we’d covered in class.

When we finally moved to Liberty — chosen in part because it’s only a few miles from work — we largely stopped our extended road trips. The time we spent together in the car was less important, replaced by the mundanity of life.

When COVID hit, I found the open road again, reminded of what it’s like to feel free and alive. What I didn’t realize is that my pandemic-prompted rediscovery of driving bliss would also coincide with my oldest daughter’s 16th birthday. She’s now old enough to get her permit, and with it, the first glorious moments of teenage freedom.

Convincing Ella that these glorious moments are within her reach has been tougher than I expected. While most kids would relish the opportunity to get behind the wheel and escape their parents and siblings by cruising Belmont Avenue or Market Street, Ella is less inclined. 

She wants freedom, but she’s also apprehensive about the responsibilities (and perhaps reluctant to become an Uber driver for the family). Most days I can appreciate her hesitant nature. Helicopter parents would probably love a kid like Ella because the thought of their little baby cruising the streets in a 2-ton machine would not mesh well with their overprotective psyches. 

Not me. I’m not a helicopter or lawnmower or whatever-they’re-calling-it-these-days parent. I want her to go. I want her to explore. I want her to get that learner’s permit, and eventually a license, and explore the world — just so long as she remembers to pick up milk and be home by 9 (8 on school nights).

Because of Ella’s reluctance, I’ve been making the case for driving. Reminding her that she likes to be alone, to be in her head, to think about life and the world around her is my modus operandi. “What better place to do this than in a car?” I say, only half-convincingly, I think. I tell her to picture what it would be like to turn up the tunes, roll down the window and go on a mini-adventure. I tell her that driving can free her brain from the complexities of life, that it’s a great way to unwind.

I appeal to her growing sense of independence. Ella has threatened to “walk” to the Dollar Store with her sister, Katie. I used this request to remind her that a car would let the two of them go to exotic locales such as Mill Creek Park and Eastwood Mall.

My desire to convince Ella to drive isn’t completely unselfish. I dream about kicking Ella and her siblings out of the house for a few hours so Mary Beth and I can talk, or watch a movie, without constant interruption. I think about sending Ella to pick up her sister from dance when I’m just too damn tired to move. 

More importantly, I want Ella to just drive, to just get lost — not on the roads, but in the moment of being alone with the kind of freedom only an official state-issued driver’s license can bring.

For any of this to happen, Ella needs to take the driver’s test. Yesterday, when I noticed Ella was “in her head” and thinking about life, I took it as an opportunity (once again) to push the test. 

“Why not study this weekend and take it next week?” I asked.

She said “yes.” It took every ounce of energy to contain the gigantic smile and “Sweet!” welling up inside. 

I’m not dumb. I know that a surefire way for any parent to dissuade a teenager from anything is to look happy or be enthusiastic about it. 

I played it cool because I want this for Ella. I want my baby to experience the joy you only find by taking on challenges and succeeding. Driving is her next milestone. Just as I watched my baby girl take her first steps or say her first word, I want to be by her side when she flashes her beautiful smile for the folks at the Ohio BMV.  

I’m willing to take the hit to our insurance premium to make it so.

— Adam Earnheardt is professor and special assistant to the provost at YSU and executive director of the Youngstown Press Club. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn.