There are a million things missing from the lives of older kids who've spent an extended time in foster care, including obvious things like love, security, and the identity that comes from being with your family. But what I didn't know and have learned is that there are other comparatively small but nevertheless very significant things missing - including someone to teach you to drive.
It turns out many teenagers in foster care don't learn to drive, because nobody wants to pay for the classes nor entrust them with the responsibility of driving. And as a result, many "age out" of foster care not knowing how. When we met T. he was just coming up on 15-and-a-half. I asked him if he was learning to drive, and he just said no. When we asked him if he'd like to learn, he looked hopeful but not completely convinced that we were serious.
Pursuing his permit was like the adoption process in miniature - tedious paperwork and permissions complicated by his unique legal guardianship situation, and a series of delays, negotiations and logistical challenges exacerbated by the fact that we share him with his weekday foster mom. He had to trust that we'd stick with it and eventually get him behind the wheel, and finally we did.
As we ran out of the house to take his photo on Sunday while he posed with his driving instructor, we felt just like parents. The instructor was momentarily struck by the obvious physical difference between us (since we are remarkably pale compared to T.) but he recovered gracefully and addressed me politely as the parent. T. was beaming. Actually, he was doing something he does when he's really happy - he bursts out in a big smile, then gets embarrassed and overwhelmed, looks down at his toes and tries to gather himself together. Then he looks up and starts to smile uncontrollably again, then he looks down at his toes. In the process, he loses his ability to speak. It's an amazing cycle to observe. Of all the emotions in life, he seems most surprised and overwhelmed by happiness.
Driving together - as we did later - had a similar effect to snorkeling; shared physical risk, especially in a situation where we are giving gentle instructions, seems to produce a deep connection. He often checks my face when he makes a mistake - a quick furtive glance that is obviously a habit acquired from growing up with people who lose their temper easily. When he's driving, he has to look at the road, and trust our voices, allow himself to make mistakes, and take total responsibility for our safety. It's profound and metaphorical.
He tells us now about all the places he's going to drive us. I think it can be overwhelming to him to imagine his future - because of his history, he rarely speaks of anything other than the recent past. He's never had any control over what lay ahead. But driving seems to give him a giddy sense of possibility and self-determination within manageable emotional parameters. So now we have a series of road trips planned. Added bonus: being in the car together really gets him in a confessional state of mind, and we learn the most astonishing things about him! But that's a topic for another day.