“And I felt like I belonged. I felt like I could be somebody.
As this quote from Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” evokes in its beautiful and haunting chorus, there’s something about flying in a car that makes you feel like you can leave what you know behind. and do anything. Although the narrator of this song does not drive the car herself, it is still the object that literally takes her away from home and figuratively transports her to a new chapter in her life. The one she belongs to. One where she can “be somebody”. As so many songs and stories describe, my coming of age coincided with learning to drive.
It was my first year of high school. I spent a lot of time learning how to make a left turn through an intersection in less than a minute and sitting in a classroom watching mandatory videos about how quickly you would die if you hit a tree at 55 miles per hour. When I got my license I was worried, having come to the conclusion that the only way to be safe was to live underground – away from any roads, for the rest of my life. While overcoming the fear instilled in me by Driver’s Ed, I also faced another fear: my best friend had gone to Sweden as an international student, which let me realize how little I had. really close friends. Just as I experienced driving alone for the first time, I felt an increased loneliness in the rest of my life.
I don’t think you can “come of age” without spending time alone, a theory supported by popular media. Watch Olivia Rodrigo’s 2021 Song “Driving license,in which she drives alone past places she once thought she was driving with her ex-boyfriend, taking away some of the power those places — and the breakup — hold over her. Or take Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird.” in 2017, where punky teenager Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, “Little Women”) finally leaves Sacramento for college in New York, only after leaving her best friend and her family and experiencing the freedom of being alone, meeting a sophisticated man she barely knows, and becoming so drunk she ends up in hospital, Lady Bird realizes she has to change. In the final scene, she calls and leaves a message for her parents. She addresses her mother, asking if she felt emotional the first time she drove through Sacramento, because although she had known the city all her life, she felt different when Lady Bird l crossed herself for the first time. It is in this final scene that she calls herself for the first time by her first name, Christine, rather than using the nickname she chose for herself. Being alone for the first time intersects with her acceptance of her identity as her mother’s daughter, despite their strained relationship.
Unfortunately for me, the freshman year of high school was not a great time for isolation. I had a crush on someone and was too afraid of rejection to act on it. Instead, I fell into a pit of insecurities when hiding my feelings didn’t make anyone fall in love with me. I convinced myself that I wasn’t good enough in any way, whether it was my personality, which I was sure I didn’t have, or my body. I became closed off to friends who were still there because I felt they didn’t care about me. The truth was they didn’t know anything was wrong because I never said anything about it. I had never been one to talk a lot about my feelings, and until that year, that had seemed like a strength to me. Suddenly this trait isolated me and convinced me that I had no one to talk to if I wanted to. Reflection makes it seem impossible for me to let those problems from the first year of high school devastate me as much as they did. We have all been there. (Please tell me we’ve all been there.)
This is the friend in Sweden that I finally spoke to. There was something about his distance that made it easy to throw all my problems at him. I imagine it’s similar to why people can say hateful things on social media that they could never say in real life. An irrational part of me thought my friend would be mad at me – for liking someone she was friends with, for being an emotional wreck, for not talking to her sooner – but what could she do in 4,000 miles away? I wrote an awfully long message in my notes app, starting with an apology for sending it very late to Sweden and ending, 17 paragraphs of spiraling self-indulgence later, with another apology , this one for having unloaded everything on her. Writing this for the Michigan Daily, I found the note, still on my phone, and the last sentence sums up my state of mind at the time: “Please just let me know you don’t don’t make fun of me or don’t make me sure you are. I copied and pasted the whole thing into Snapchat, sent it off, and spent the rest of the evening stressing out.
Needless to say, my friend didn’t hate me because I was in a bad mental state. Instead, this message started a year of news-length text message exchange. It turned out that it was also one of the most difficult years of his life. Her foster family was not what she had hoped for, and several months into the year her boyfriend broke up with her. It was the first time I realized that vulnerability invites vulnerability. When I opened up to her, she did the same, and despite the distance between them, our friendship had never been stronger than that year.
One day I opened Snapchat to find a playlist this friend had made for me. Every song was sad. I liked it. The music matched my dramatic desolation. I sent her a playlist that went from love to sadness to hope, thinking it might help her through her breakup. It has become a new method of communication between us; later we went from sad songs to angry songs like Alanis Morissette’s”You have to know.” These are the playlists I listened to during my first few months of riding on my own. They were the soundtrack to my coming of age movie. If the “driver’s license” had existed then, I’m sure it would have been on the lists.
Therefore, both “driver’s license” and “Lady Bird” also imply obtaining her license. This is another part of growing up that inevitably involves more alone time. The first time Lady Bird drove was the start of a change to accept her place in her family. The “driver’s license” lyrics illustrate how different things seem after a breakup, but they also show how the world changes after you learn to drive. For me, driving was the only thing I liked to do alone. I could sing, I could cry, I could talk to myself, and I could indulge in sadness for things I knew weren’t so bad, like when the person I loved loved someone else and that no one was there to judge me.
Symbolism in movies and music can make a driver’s license or isolation directly cause a life-changing moment in which a person comes of age. Perhaps this singular moment of change is true to some people’s real-life experiences, but I predict that for most, myself included, it takes longer than that. However, the link between getting a license and coming of age is not exclusive to fiction. Driving a car presents a new, often unexpected perspective. It’s obvious if you’ve ever driven a car, preferably shouting your favorite songs with the volume loud enough that you can pretend your singing is anything but terrible. The world scrolls by as you propel yourself into the future. We use ‘getting behind the wheel’ and ‘being in the driver’s seat’ as metaphors often linked to the new responsibilities of growing up, but it’s also a step towards literal adulthood. A driver’s license is a marker of becoming an adult. Driving alone, I found the moving car to be a place of solace – a chrysalis in which I could sing and cry and emerge as someone different, someone who talked to their friends, allowed themselves to be vulnerable and ultimately, to be happy.
Isn’t that what “coming of age” means? A drastic change in ourselves, which generally helps us find ourselves to feel like real human beings? Or maybe it’s not really a change. Maybe it’s more about accepting who we already are. Maybe it’s Lady Bird who’s name is Christine and I’m telling my friends I was depressed.
Towards the end of junior year, when things were looking up and I could count the weeks until my friend came home, I watched “Lady Bird” for the first time, and Alanis Morissette “hand in my pocket” has become my favorite driving song. If driving down the road while Morissette sings, “Nobody’s really got it yet”, understanding it but accepting it and enjoying every minute of it, doesn’t mean coming of age, I don’t know what it means .
Daily Arts editor Erin Evans can be reached on [email protected].