My nephew is beginning his driver’s training this month and I couldn’t help but begin to reflect on what an odd and wonderful experience it was when I had to do it. There probably hasn’t ever been a normal driver’s training instructor, so it was almost a cruel joke of sorts that mine was named Mr. Normile.
He was a nice man, a retired math teacher. He always had powdered donuts caked on his lips, he looked like a catfish. His daughter, who had definitely been left to play in the family gene pool while the lifeguard was off duty, bore a striking resemblance to her dear old dad. Mr. Normile made a point to remind me what a nice girl she was during our test-drives about the neighborhood.
“I wouldn’t be tellin’ ya that if I didn’t think you were a nice guy too,” he said between spastic pumps of his passenger side brake when I began to approach the underside of the speed limit.
Back at the windowless driver’s training class room, just around the way from a popular street corner for human advertisements to dance the sales up in giant hot dog suits, our class of high school Americana sat through two and a half hour classes of Mr. Normile’s custom brand of educational entertainment.
One of our favorite games to play was, “Mr. Normile asks a question from the book, repeatedly, and receives no response from the class.” Mr. Normile was enthralled by it; once the silent tension was drawn taught he would meticulously pick out students he suspected were paying attention, like he was deciding whether to cut the green or red wire to defuse a bomb.
More often than not he would mistake the effects of a student’s early flirtations with marijuana as a match to his own beef jerky-dry personality and call on them.
But it didn’t faze our commander in car safety education. His default back up plan after the initial mishap was to call on one of the Asian foreign exchange kids in the front. Their English was taped together like a nerd’s glasses, but the old cliché that they were more studious than the average American had left an indelible mark on Mr. Normile’s psyche and he would always look to them for a quick bailout when the rest of the class was stonewalling him.
It was during one of these desperate times that the most terrible joke our class had had ever been subjected to spontaneously took place. Mr. Normile had reverted to badgering a quiet student by the name of Cho for an answer to a multiple-choice question. The answer was “B, pass,” as in, “to pass a car on the highway.” But Cho informed Mr. Normile after giving several incorrect responses that that he wanted to “pass,” or pass on trying to answer the question anymore.
Mr. Normile’s eyes lit up, his body began to gyrate with the giddy quivers of a chuckle that he could not entirely suppress.
“Well, huh, huh, actually Cho, huh, huh, that IS the right answer!”
Cho stared ahead blankly, wordless and motionless behind his glasses.
“Get it Cho?” Mr. Normile prodded, “The answer is B, PASS the car, and YOU said PASS!”
Cho did his best to placate what very well may have been the most comical moment of Mr. Normile’s educational career.
“Oh,” Cho said, “I get it, huh huh.”
The only other person in the room who was getting a kick out the situation was my friend, David. We had gone to the same schools since we were little, but I hadn’t seen him much before we discovered ourselves in the same driver’s training class. I had no idea that somewhere along the way he had developed a mental tick that made him laugh hysterically after everything he said and sometimes what others said, whether it was funny or not. In many ways, it was like the humorous affliction that haunted the kid on the original “Scared Straight,” who can’t stop laughing when the inmates are screaming in his face that they’re going to make him their bitch.
Mr. Normile’s play on words was far less threatening. David loved it and let out a wild shriek of laughter when the joke was explained to Cho. Mr. Normile’s head snapped like a Falcon from the foreign student in his classroom to locate the foreign noise. His gleaming eyes caught David’s beaming face and the two bonded instantly in their nerdy dementia.
Mr. Normile let out another exploratory chuckle,“Huh, huh.”
David responded with another adolescent shriek that couldn’t have better identified him as a late bloomer and the two instantaneously exploded with laughter, each looking at the other for inspiration to laugh harder and harder until Mr. Normile was rocking back and forth on the front desk like he had been shot in the stomach and David was nearly screaming with tears, pounding his notebook like his fist was a gavel and he was calling for more madness.
That was about as eventful as it ever got in my driver’s training class. I passed with an 89 percent. Like most of what are supposed to be the defining moments of a person’s life, the whole experience seems much more colorful in retrospect. Here’s hoping that my nephew makes a few memories of his own during his driver’s training and can enjoy the simple pleasures that occur so infrequently during the extraordinarily trying time he’s about to pass through. Looking back on it, Mr. Normile was a master of that.