Being a parent can feel like déjà vu sometimes. You get to experience some of the same things again but from a different perspective.
For instance, a few weeks ago I took one of our 15-year old daughters to get her driver’s permit. She had studied the handbook, made flashcards, and took online quizzes. She felt fully prepared the Friday afternoon I drove her to the DMV.
There’s a reason the Department of Motor Vehicles has a certain reputation for being a place where joyfulness dies a miserable, hour-long death. They’ve improved the efficiency of the process with innovations such as automated kiosks to renew your drivers’ license, but there are steps that still require talking to a living, breathing human being, preferably a slightly irritated one, apparently.
We arrived at the DMV at 3:30, later than I had planned. The employee at the entrance told us that they wouldn’t admit the people in line after us. Phew! We showed him the letter from my daughter’s school, her birth certificate, a completed and notarized form, and my drivers’ license. (I know. That’s a lot of stuff, right? Just to be on the safe side, I also brought a utility bill, her passport, and a urine sample. Okay. I actually only brought 2 out of 3 of those items on the EXTRA list.)
We were given a number and told to wait. As the minutes ticked by, my daughter Ella grew increasingly more nervous. She said, “I’ve taken tons of tests before. Why am I so worried?”
A different employee sitting behind a part of the U-shaped community desk called us up to review our paperwork and take her picture, then the woman sent us back to sit down.
After a few more minutes, Ella was told to go and take the test in an adjacent room. I sat in a new seat in the waiting area—one closer to the computer lab where she was taking the test so that she could look at my friendly, smiling face instead of throwing up all over the keyboard from nerves. This new seat just happened to be by a large and sweaty man, but this is the love I have for my child.
Soon Ella emerged from the testing room victorious. She gave me two thumbs-up. She had been told by a friend that the 30-question test would end early once you had answered at least 24 questions correctly. (You cannot miss more than 6 questions and still pass.) She had made it through question number 26, so by her calculations she had only missed two before the test stopped. Hooray! She checked in with her DMV buddy from the U-desk who told her to sit back down and wait some more.
She texted the good news to her dad. She asked my opinion about a question from the test involving a deer crossing. We held hands, sighing with relief.
When her number was called again, the DMV employee asked Ella, “Do you have a handbook at home, sweetie?” (I remember the “sweetie” part because it was unusually humanizing.)
Ella: Yes, ma’am.
DMV Woman: Well, that’s good because you need to study some more. You failed the test.
Ella: I failed? But I only missed two questions.
DMV Woman: How do you know you only missed two? (As she said this the woman crossed her arms behind her head and leaned her neck into her interlocked fingers, real nonchalant like from a gangster movie.)
Ella: The test stopped after question number 26.
DMV Woman: Huh? Well, you are going to have to come back and take the test again.
I had my hand on Ella’s back, and I could feel the heat rising off of her like the June sun bouncing off the asphalt parking lot outside. I tried to keep the conversation light while simultaneously considering how Ella was going to cry on the way home. I asked the woman if there could be a mistake. Maybe Ella’s score was mixed up with someone else’s? She had felt so sure she had passed.
The DMV employee kept this line of dialogue going for a good five or ten minutes, then she smiled and said, “Oh, I’m just kidding. You passed.”
Ella and I were in shock and not so sure what we were supposed to do next.
Ha, ha, ha. We forced a few laughs out. “You really had us going,” I told her. “Like you REALLY made us think that she had FAILED her test.”
The woman told us how she often got bored, so she and many of the others who work there like to prank people. One guy even made one girl cry and run out the door when he told her she had failed. Someone had to go to the parking lot and bring her back inside.
What I wanted to say was: “I can see how that would be funny and completely kind, because the best people to prank are highly emotional 15-year old girls. That’s hilarious.” But instead I said, “So we’re good to go?” and we left with Ella’s temporary driver’s permit clutched tightly in her hand.
As parents, we don’t really get to choose which things to live through again with our kids. Dentist appointments, booster shots, friend drama, romantic break-ups, failing tests. It’s no better the second (or third or fourth or fifth) time around—maybe even worse. But I was glad to add that day to the story we’re daily writing called “Ella and Mom.”
And it inspired me to make the magnanimous decision to let my husband take the next kid to the DMV. I’m just nice like that. (Here’s where I cross my arms behind my head and lean my neck into my interlocked fingers, gangster style.)