Driver's Ed Characters
by Caroline B. Cooney

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Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Remy's crush on Morgan is so well known that her classmates willingly reshuffle the driving schedule so she can be in the car with Morgan. The taking of road signs becomes the "class project" for this section of Driver's Ed with Remy wanting the sign "MORGAN ROAD." A classmate states that adults tolerate this activity if they don't know about it. "Parents don't mind seeing the sign in your room, but they don't like knowing ahead of time that you're going to take it." Remy, Morgan, and an older kid in school, Nicholas Budie, who has a driver's license, go out on a late November evening to take road signs. Morgan is excited by "the risk of getting caught," while Remy is excited about being with Morgan, thankful that her prayer to "the God of True Love" has been answered.

Who wouldn't be infatuated with a girl whose laughter "erupted, as if she had been carbonated. Bottled with love." This description closely follows their first kiss after Morgan holds Remy's ankles so she can stand on the roof of the old black Buick to remove the bolts holding the sign MORGAN ROAD. Remy briefly thinks "We're stealing . . . the word landed on her like a mosquito.... It's just a sign . . . a silly old sign." Morgan is preoccupied with touching as much of Remy as would be appropriate on a first date. "[He] puts his hand on the back of her neck, touching the bristly back of her hair. It did not feel the way he had expected: it was silk." Little wonder they are nearly oblivious to taking the road signs when their physical presences are so overwhelming for the other. They are nice kids: they get good grades, sing in the school choir, and go to the same church, but on this particular mid-November evening they do not think clearly, and what results turns them into fascinating characters.

Both of these kids are saturated with their hormones, ignorant and oblivious to the consequences of taking the last sign for this particular evening, the octagonal STOP sign at the corner of Cherry and Warren Roads. Two days later Remy and Morgan learn of Denise Thompson's death at this intersection. Although they remain together as a couple, they become preoccupied with confronting their families and Denise Thompson's husband with their admission of collusion. Budie, their driver, denies any involvement.

The most explicit statement of theme for young adults in Driver's Ed comes from the policeman being interviewed for television coverage at the scene of Denise Thompson's death. When asked who had taken the STOP sign, the officer responds: "'Kids.' He had seen it before, he would see it again. 'They don't think. They like the shape of stop signs, you know. We hafta replace them all the time. Kids probably figure whoever's driving here will figure it out. You know, stop whether the sign's there or not. Kids don't stop to think.'"

This interview has a profound impact on Morgan as he watches the eleven o'clock news with his parents, knowing this sign is on its side in their garage. "Morgan was screaming on the inside. It was soundless, yet so loud that jet engines might be taking off in his brain.... Morgan's mind burned. His heart seemed to catch fire. He felt so hot and dry, he felt blistered. Nobody died he thought. Not because of me. I'm a nice person. It was only a sign." This confrontation with the consequences of his action intensifies as the remnants of the twisted, wrecked car are displayed on the front lawn of the high school campus and full-page newspaper and television ads paid for by Denise Thompson's husband offer a reward for information concerning his wife's death. Haunted and hounded by these images, and in spite of his desire to protect Remy, he admits his involvement in this accident by telling his father, Rafe Campbell. Morgan demonstrates he has a moral conscience by accepting responsibility for his actions.

After everyone is informed, Morgan asks his father if this tragedy will impact his political future: "This isn't a skeleton in your closet?" Morgan asks. "No, it isn't Morgan," said his father quietly. "It's a skeleton in your closet." Both Remy and Morgan are morally correct in publicly admitting their involvement and will remain the living, guilty survivors of this tragedy from this time forward. They have become the victims of their own thoughtlessness.

Accepting responsibility for one's actions (or rather inaction) expands into an adult character: the Driver's education instructor, Mr. Fielding. "Year after year he [Fielding] and they [the current class] mindlessly drifted through eight week sessions." His indifference to his class, failing to know their names, ignoring their weak driving skills (in favor of looking at Dunkin' Donut signs), neglecting to take action when he knows of their "class project" ahead of time, forces him to admit his part in Denise Thompson's death. '"You're all brats, one way or another. I don't exempt a single one of you. But I'm worse, because I didn't care.... She's dead. Denise Thompson. She's dead. You kids are always mentioning life and death . . . getting into college is life and death. Getting your driver's license is life and death. Having a date is life and death.' He waited for them to look up. 'Only driving is life and death. Holding a steering wheel is life and death. Choosing to control a car is life and death.'" It takes courage and moral determination to stand before these kids to admit his ineffectiveness as a teacher and an adult.

Two other young adult characters represent the moral antithesis to Remy, Morgan, and Mr. Fielding. The foil characters of Lark and Nicholas Budie look out for their own interests even though both are involved directly and indirectly in the taking of the STOP sign that results in Denise Thompson's death. Of the two, Budie is more directly involved and resembles a traditional villain. To use Cooney's community vernacular, Budie is known as "pond scum" or "slime" who, once having a car, "began running over animals. He had a personal road kill count." It is Budie who encourages Morgan to remove the STOP sign (with his help) and to hide it in the Campbell garage (not his). Little wonder Budie thinks of Denise Thompson's death as an act he "managed." "It's the ultimate cool, isn't it?" But he will deny being part of it, with his parents providing an alibi for him on that particular Thursday evening. He is manipulative, sadistic, and amoral.

Lark is an instigator; she is the one in the driver's education class who makes the rule "Nobody gets a license without taking a sign first.... Nobody would get into trouble. Everybody takes signs." She points out, "You don't go to prison for stealing signs.... It's a little itty bit of wood and paint. All you do is pay a fine." Lark organizes the sign-stealing escapade, but drops out from going at the last minute. Lark's parents are nonexistent in her life. "They never came to anything, even teacher conferences. They had basically skipped Lark's life. She didn't mind. She made a life of her own." She's the one who calls Remy about Denise Thompson, but she will have nothing to do with accepting any part of Remy and Morgan's dilemma. "Lark did not want to get involved with some sort of murder thing. She was a junior. Time to think about college." She looks out for herself for no one else will. She is a pathetic person who deserves understanding but not exoneration from her detrimental manipulation of her classmates.