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Principal’s Panui – 26 October 2018

The following story is by Robert Fulghum, It Was on Fire When I Laid Down on It, 1989, 69-73.

In most American High Schools there is someone who teaches driver training. The driver trainer is something of a non-person. The parents of students never meet the DT; the faculty do not include him in their inner circle; and the students see the DT as a necessary evil. One more adult in their lives.

Nevertheless, I would like to teach driver training for a while. It would be an honor, now that I see it the way Old Mr. Perry sees it. The students call him that, “Old Mr. Perry.” It is not his real name. They also call him “the Driving Master.” The students suggested that I take a ride and see for myself. I did.

Jack Perry was his name. Very average in appearance—not tall or short or fat or thin or old or young or weird. Kind of generic. You wouldn’t notice him on the street or pick him out of a police lineup for ever having done anything remarkable. Former Navy chief petty officer, retired, one wife, four kids all grown, tends his garden for pleasure. Likes cars and kids, so he’s the driver trainer

So, I asked Mr. Perry, You’re the man who teaches DT?

Well, that’s my job title, yes.

I’d like to know what you really do. The students say you are one of the really fine people around school—a truly maximum dude, to quote one.

You really want to know?

I really want to know.

Guess this sounds presumptuous, but I think of myself as a shaman—I help young men and women move through a rite of passage—and my job is getting them to think about this time in their lives.

Most of them are almost sixteen. They know a lot more about life and sex and school and alcohol and drugs and money than their parents or teachers give them credit for. And they are physically pretty much what they are going to be.

But we don’t have any cultural rituals to acknowledge they’re growing up. There’s no ceremony, changing of clothes, or roles or public statements that says, this isn’t a kid anymore—this is a young adult. Take notice!

The only thing we do is give them a driver’s license. Having a car means you move out of the backseat (where children sit) into the driver’s seat. You aren’t a passenger anymore. You’re in charge. You can go where you want to go. You have power now. So that’s what we talk about. The power.

But what about actually learning to operate a vehicle? Oh, that comes easily enough—some driving time with suggestions—reading the manual—and they want it all enough to work on their own. But I don’t talk much about that—they have to pass a test, and it usually takes care of itself.

So what do you talk about when you’re out driving?

About their new power—opportunity—responsibility. About their dreams and hopes and fears—about “someday and what if.” I listen a lot, mostly. I’m not a parent or a school teacher or a neighbour or a shrink, and they hardly ever see me except when it’s just the two of us out in a car driving around. I’m safe to talk to. They tell me about love and money and plans, and they ask me what it was like when I was their age.

Will you take me for a drive? My driving could be improved. And so we went. And so it was. My driving was improved—along with my sense of place and purpose.

The experience with the Driving Master emphasizes the profound truth of an old story. If you don’t know it, it’s time you heard it. If you do know it, you ought to hear it again once in a while.

The story says that a traveller from Italy came to the French town of Chartres to see the great church that was being built there. Arriving at the end of the day, he went to the site just as the workmen were leaving for home. He asked one man, covered with dust, what he did there. The man replied that he was a stonemason. He spent his days carving rocks. Another man, when asked, said he was a glass blower who spent his days making slabs of coloured glass. Still another workman replied that he was a blacksmith who pounded iron for a living.

Wandering into the deepening gloom of the unfinished edifice, the traveller came upon an older woman, armed with a broom, sweeping up the stone chips and wood shavings and glass shards from the day’s work. “What are you doing?” he asked her.

The woman paused, leaning on her broom and looking up toward the high arches, replied, Me? I’m building a cathedral for the Glory of Almighty God!

I have often thought about the people of Chartres. They began something they knew they would never see completed. They built for something larger than themselves. They had a magnificent vision.

For Jack Perry, it is the same. He will never see his students grow up. Few teachers do. But from where he is and with what he has, he serves a vision of how the world ought to be.

The old woman of Chartres was a spiritual ancestor of the man who teaches driver training, who is building a cathedral to the human enterprise in his own quiet way. From him the kids learn both to drive a car and drive a life— with care.

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