The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) employee stared at me, becoming visibly upset, then at John, then me again and spoke matter-of-factly, in the same tone as if he was ordering a burger at a pick-up window. “You’ll need to complete the entire course, plus show us you can handle a “K” turn and also parallel park coming in from your left and in from your right.” It was clear he was speaking to my and not my husband, but we were incredulous. We had recently moved from New York to suburban New Jersey closer to John’s parents, and both us needed a New Jersey license. At the beginning of the day, we had expected some paperwork and fees and then to exchange our New York licenses for New Jersey. How complicated could it be?
Speechless, John stepped in on my behalf. “Hey, this is not necessary. She’s been driving for almost twenty years already. Her record is perfect, even better than mine!” I had already heard the story of when John was a teenager and, after only seven months with his license, wrecked his dad’s car while speeding on a slick road. Fortunately, the only casualty was the car. His dad got a new plate for the replacement car that read, “2nd Try” so when everyone inevitably asked about the first try, John would have to be reminded of, and explain, his mistake. I’ve always enjoyed his family’s twisted sense of humor.
But this was no laughing matter. I was already emotionally weak, having suffered a recent miscarriage, and was in no mood for this unexpected and unwelcome encounter. Back where I grew up in Urbana, Illinois, no one had ever questioned my ability to drive. Except for the fact that my Brooklyn-born father insisted I learn how to parallel park even when it wasn’t required by the DMV in Central Illinois, getting my license was no different for me than for any of my friends. I studied, I practiced with a Driver’s Ed instructor, and passed. This day, however, I was in no mood to back down. Our son, Ethan, now eighteen months old, was home with his grandparents so I was in no rush. My dignity had just been shattered by this clerk and I decided this argument was worth my time. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I must have practically yelled since I could feel more eyes in the room staring at me than usual. “Ma’am, I have to follow the rules. I need to make sure you can safely drive a vehicle in this state. It’s to protect you too, you know.” Tears began to form, and I stepped away to speak in private to my agitated husband. “This is nuts! I’ve been driving forever. Why wouldn’t my record already prove I can drive? Do think I could drive worse in New Jersey than New York?” At that question, he pursed his lips. However, in the end, it was clear that any continued pressing would only delay the inevitable, and could even make the ultimate outcome worse. John held my one-fingered hand and whispered in my ear, “C’mon. Let’s just get through this.”
Still angry, but resolved I had no choice, I got in the car, and drove the full course perfectly in the 1st attempt. “That was very good….good for you!” The instructor was looking right at me, as if I was a teenager hoping to get my license for the first time. But instead of feeling triumphant, I felt extremely humiliated. Stepping out of the car, I motioned to John, letting him know where he could find me. I then walked straight out of the building, leaving John to handle the rest of the paperwork. A few minutes later, he joined me and tried his best to cheer me up. “Well, we sure didn’t see that coming!”
The other day, a friend from Urbana shared an article with me privately on Facebook, “Wisconsin DMV denies driver’s license to man with no hands.” Although she had no idea how personally the article would touch me, her simple comment penetrated, “Maybe this is common knowledge, but I had no idea.” As I rode the ferry yesterday with John and our three children to Nantucket, my mind leaped back to my experience with New Jersey’s DMV and I thought about my four years as a student in Madison, Wisconsin. I realized then, however, I never sought a Wisconsin license so I didn’t have the pleasure of that DMV experience.
The article in the Appleton described how Mark Speckman, a Lawrence University football coach, former All-American honors Division-3 linebacker and motivational speaker had recently moved to Wisconsin with his wife and how they went to get their drivers licenses. But instead of the day going smoothly at the DMV, Speckman heard, “No offense sir, but you know you don’t have hands, and I’m not sure what we can do about your license.” Although Speckman explained he’d been driving for over 44 years in California, his wife Sue immediately was given her license, while Speckman was escorted to take a driving test. “All of a sudden,” said Sue, I see this lady walk out with her yellow safety vest and a clipboard with Mark behind her….taking him for a road test like you would take a beginning driver.” The instructor wasn’t satisfied with Speckman’s performance and failed him on three of the DMV’s procedures, which meant no license. “This is the first time I’ve ever had an institutional barrier that’s caused me to really pause….you feel helpless, you feel like you’re being minimized….I feel like they discriminated against me based on ignorance.” And his wife’s reaction resonated. “We didn’t see that coming,” she said.
Feeling immediate empathy with Speckman, I posted the article on the Don’t Hide It Flaunt It homepage. Responses were consistent with my own reaction, ranging from, “Hopefully they’ll sue,” to “Egads” and Awful,” “Ridiculous.” One Mom-flaunter’s commitment on behalf of her own physically different son particularly tickled me. “My thought is, my own son WILL drive when he’s old enough. I won’t let others stop him!”
So many years after my own similar experience, I can’t help but to compare it to the same type of person who takes one look at me in a store and offers to sign my credit card receipt. Although it has taken years of practice and yes, maturity, I’ve learned to swallow my pride and understand the person is simply well-intentioned. Those little encounters are inevitable in everyday life for me and I thankfully move on, unscathed.
However, the impact from the DMV experience is a bigger deal. Its consequences can be both lingering and substantial. For Speckman, while I can appreciate the need for DMV employees to be vigilant, I have a hard time accepting that he really failed any particular test in Wisconsin after successfully driving for more than four decades elsewhere. I get it, sure. There are people who can’t fathom how we can manage the most basic things, like signing a receipt. So, of course, they would easily question how could we possibly drive a motor vehicle? Yet it is hard to stomach the notion that a DMV employee, seeing him for the first time, would assume that Speckman was just a guy with a diminished capacity. If only that employee knew of the amazing accomplishments achieved over the years by this man without hands.
I think the point is that ironically, while people like me spend our daily lives making every effort to be mature and even laid-back regarding how people commonly react, on occasion someone else’s ignorant act or comment is no longer an innocuous, well-meaning one-off. Instead, it can be something potentially life-altering.