When you see a woman drive
My cousin (at the wheel) and me on my grandmother's bus

My cousin (at the wheel) and me on my grandmother's bus

I’ve been told I drive like a man.  I take this neither as a compliment nor as an insult, even though those who have told me this—all men—probably mean it as the former.  Instead, I take it as the logical outgrowth of my driving foundations.  Men taught me how to drive, so I drive like a man.

On a recent Sunday, one of my teenage cousins was learning how to parallel park.  As my cousin’s father set up trash cans to simulate parallel parking, I asked my grandmother who taught her how to drive.

“Ed did,” she said, referring to my late grandfather and her late husband.

This threw me for two reasons.  One, because they had been married 52 years when he died in 1999, which meant that my grandmother was about 23 when they got married.  They had known each other before they got married, but him teaching her to drive before then seemed even more unlikely than him teaching her how to drive at all.  Two, she doesn’t drive like Ed, never did, and has never enjoyed car rides with people who do—self included.

She nodded at my puzzled look and explained, “I was 32 when I got my license.”

Further bewilderment.

When my maternal grandmother was a young girl, seeing women behind the wheel of a car was so rare that when she and her siblings saw a car pass by their house on KY HWY 22 and a woman was driving, they would excitedly report to their mom, “Mom, mom!  A woman was driving that car!”

My first instinct was to consider the anomaly of a woman behind the wheel as oppressive.  We now consider driving a given rite of passage to teenagers, and we encourage them to work not just to give them something to do and to help build their work ethic, but also so that they can save money for a car.  But after a few seconds, I thought about how few cars people saw on the road in the 1920s and 1930s in general and how odd it would be for women to drive if they weren’t working outside of the home or if suburban sprawl and big box stores didn’t exist.

My grandmother walked, caught the bus, or rode with her husband or her father until she learned to drive.  Her two sisters learned to drive as adults, also.

I was bewildered for a third reason.  My grandmother retired from JCPS as a school bus driver.  She had won awards for driving safety, and I think I had always assumed her first vehicle was a big yellow school bus.

She began driving school buses at age 48.  She hadn’t considered it until one passed by with a woman driving it.  She then thought, “Now that’s something I’d like to do,” so she put in an application, test drove a bus at the fairgrounds, and went on to pass the school board’s driving test.

Her first bus was manual transmission with no power steering, and it would be two years before she really felt comfortable driving one.  Once she was sure of herself, however, “I’d go wherever they told me to go,” she said, including on trips to Northern Indiana to retrieve new buses and drive them back to the compound in Louisville.

Me in front of my grandmother's bus, parked in her driveway

Me in front of my grandmother's bus, parked in her driveway, early 1980s

Cool, I thought as she finished her story.  There are many jobs we don’t look upon with much reverence, but knowing that my grandmother went from being surprised that a woman was driving a car to being inspired by a woman to drivea bus–to control an unwieldy vehicle and gain the trust of hundreds of parents–is inspiring to me.  It reminds me that women didn’t always have the givens that I have, that there is always a ground-breaker, and that there’s always the chance that someone will be inspired by me doing my every day job.

Yeah.  Pretty cool.

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4 thoughts on “When you see a woman drive

  1. I love the women who pick up my daughters at our neighborhood bus stop. They are so friendly and caring towards my children. Every day I entrust them to get my daughters safely to school. No small feat these days. 🙂 My blessings go out to all the people who help our kids get to school and back again!!

    1. Thanks, Hannelore! These women set the tone for the whole school day. Even the best ones are under appreciated, and in JCPS, they’re probably taking a lot of heat about things that aren’t their fault.

      My grandmother always used to have my cousins and me give Christmas and end-of-school-year gifts to our bus drivers. I don’t know if that’s still permitted, but if it is, I’m sure your daughters’ bus drivers would love it.

  2. That’s my sweet Great Aunt of who you write so elequently. I had forgotten she had driven the school bus but now I remember seeing her behind the wheel was like
    magic. I’d never seen anyone I knew driving a school bus. She had driven me
    a few times in life as a substitute and I remember her keeping us safe. Yes, she comes from an age of women that didn’t learn to drive like my maternal Grandmother. She never
    had the desire to drive. We all take it for granted but those times were times
    where the lines of gender were clearly drawn.

    1. Aww … thanks for sharing, Stephanie! You know that reminds me, I used to ride the bus with Sis just for the heck of it, before I was even old enough to go to school! And I would hide as the kids who were supposed to be there got off the bus so none of the teachers on the lookout outside would think the bus took off without letting all the kids off. LOL!

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