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More Stories - The Way We Were

The Value of Used Cars
By Mark Franek

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 again.

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, http://markfranek.wordpress.com/

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