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The Value of Used Cars
Mark Twain knew a thing or two about fatherhood when he penned
the words: “When I was a boy of fourteen my father was so ignorant I could hardly
stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished
at how much the old man had learned.” Like most children, I learned this wisdom
the hard way—growing up.
The day after my 16th birthday my father took me shopping for my first used car.
He avoided the new dealerships on the edge of the city and steered me instead to
used-car lots scattered way out in the country. He believed that our prospects were
better where the salesman was also the owner. I was still too young to understand.
I had saved $800 from two summers of mowing lawns and whacking weeds and I was sold
on a two-seater that would do zero to sixty in six seconds. After test-driving a
dozen cars, however, I gave my money to a salesman in a polyester suit and settled
on a rusty Toyota Celica that made it half way home before the clutch gave out.
The next morning my dad had my abandoned car towed to a local garage. The whole
place smelled of grease, oil rags and cigarettes. I saw a lot more of that garage
over the next few years: a broken shock tower, a busted starter, and a mysterious
electrical problem. Somewhere during that time dad helped me swap the factory radio
in the Celica with an after-market model. One of my father’s homemade inventions—a
drop light held together by duct-tape—shed light on our work as we spliced wires
and cut new holes into the door frames and trunk rack. It was a tricky job. Dad
claimed not to understand why I needed a new radio, but he did most of the work
anyway. We talked about girls and sports and where I wanted to go to college.
When I broke the front windshield with my fist in a jealous outburst over a girlfriend
my senior year, my father circled the car twice, took one look at my swollen knuckles,
and shook his head. “You know,” he offered, “girls aren’t worth breaking windows
over.” Then he walked back inside the house and nothing was ever spoken about it
I had to sell the Celica before going off to college. Keeping the car wasn’t an
option. According to my father, “Freshmen study, they don’t drive.” So I sold the
car for twice what I paid for it to a kid who had just turned 16 himself.
Selling that car signaled a palpable change in my life. Soon I’d be several hundred
miles away at college. I was 18, more anxious than scared, and once again without
a car. But I had learned something my father managed to teach me without telling
me: Hard work makes the man. Such is the value of used cars. They stay with you
long after they’re gone.
In May I turned 36, and yes, I finally have that sleek two-seater sports car I wanted
when I was 16. It gets me to work where I teach English to mostly affluent high-school
students. When I can, I try to teach them a little of what my father taught me.
It’s always with a little sadness that I greet young students with brand new cars
in the school’s parking lot. (They seem to crop up over-night). Parents who give
their children new cars at 16 should be prepared to give them jobs at 21. Their
kids might grow up thinking that life works like a new car. And when it doesn’t,
they’ll want someone to give them a new one.
Used cars teach young drivers several important lessons: that squeaks and rattles
are a part of any journey, that parts wear out and need replacing, that the best
route between two points isn’t always the fastest, and that once you arrive at where
you’re going it’s not what you look like but what you’ve learned along the way.
A few years ago I wrote a note to a student who had nearly failed my class: “Some
advice: spend less time on your new car and more time on your brain. You won’t have
your car ten years from now. Someone else will be driving it. And it’ll be used.”
My father, it turns out, wasn’t so dumb after all. This fall he turns 65. This is
my Father’s Day tribute to him and to fathers everywhere who teach their children
the value of hard work and self-reliance.
Mark Franek is the dean of students at the William Penn Charter School in
Philadelphia. This piece originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun. More stories
and essays can be found at Mark's site,
See Teaching Kids About Cars