The classes were as long as a school day except worse because it was the middle of summer. I sat with a bunch of kids from other schools in the county I didn’t know and didn’t really care to know. I listened to the most pointless, boring, common sense drivel that ever came out of anyone’s mouth while fighting the urge to fall asleep or stab myself with a pencil just to feel break up the boredom.
Driver’s Ed, the only part of getting your license worse than the parallel parking test.
The instructor of this class was hefty set man of considerable age, given his white hair. He wore polo shirts, khakis, and a pair of sunglasses with that strap around them that you always saw on prep kids and other old people. When he spoke you could very clearly hear the spittle fleck his lips and rattle in his throat. In these ways he was very much like Rush Limbaugh, but this was South Georgia, so I could really just say “he was a typical resident of South Georgia.”
I never really had a problem with the man, he certainly wasn’t someone I would want to have a long conversation with, but he seemed harmless enough and did his best to keep the class entertaining. He was partial to telling stories. Somehow he had accumulated enough wealth to travel numerous places in the world with his wife and he’d go on and on about hiking in New Zealand or biking in Paris and would usually end them with some humor. They weren’t very funny, but given that the rest of the day we would talk about how a steering wheel works or the distance you should keep behind a car on the highway it must have seemed like comedy gold because we laughed anyway.
On one occasion he told us a story about his trip to the Middle East. It was really about his experience riding a camel or how his wife didn’t like them or something. During this camel ride he had an Islamic guide and he asked the class,
“Now who knows what Muslims believe in?”
One kid immediately raised his hand and said,
“They believe in a false god.”
And then that hold fat man crossed his arms, nodded his head and said,
“Yes they do, but what else?”
I remember that moment vividly. I remember sitting there, not quite sure I heard right, and wondering if anyone else was going to say anything. I glanced around the room, my eyes lingering for a few extra seconds on the girl in our class wearing a burqa, and waited. Nothing happened except a continuous series of shallow, arbitrary guessing as to what Muslims believe in. Nobody said anything about what we just heard.
I said nothing.
My mind often drifts back to that day, and no memory I have disturbs me more than that one. It makes my blood stir and my teeth clench. Why, WHY didn’t I say anything? I knew better than that, I knew what an ignorant, stupid, hateful thing that was to say and I kept my god damn mouth shut. A whole roomful just accepted that remark!
I don’t know what held me back, maybe it happened so fast I didn’t have time to react, maybe I just didn’t want to piss off the guy who needed to pass me out of that miserable class… When I told my mother this story she said it’s for the best that I didn’t say anything. Don’t want to cause unnecessary problems after all. But that didn’t make me feel any better. Every time I thought about it, every time I do think about it, it makes me sick and angry and yearning for a chance to relive that moment, raise my hand and say, “You do realize Christians and Muslims worship the same god right?”
I can’t remember how this happened, but one time I was telling this story to someone else, someone closer to my age at the time, I told them I regretted that moment more than anything else in my life.
“Good,” they said to me, “you should.”
It wasn’t a dig at me for being cowardly, they were words of encouragement. Now I know. I know to speak up if I hear something that needs to be challenged, and I have. Most of my high school interactions involved yelling at the more obnoxious classmates who had something homophobic or just plain stupid to say. It definitely had a mixed bag of responses, and I can’t say it gained me extra respect from a room full of adolescents who only wanted to hang on to their very limited world view, but damn it if I didn’t feel a lot better afterwards.
As for the old driver’s ed. instructor who loved his exotic trips I don’t know where is now or what he’s done, but I can say this:
You can go to the end of the world and back, but if you’re still that ignorant when you get back you certainly can’t call yourself well-traveled.