For drivers ed and legendary instructor, it's the end of the road
After half a century, Seattle Schools has decided to eliminate what was a teen rite of passage. From now on, drivers ed in the city will be available only through private commercial outfits.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Video of the 1980s and '90s KING-TV comedy show "Almost Live!" and its famed sendup of Ballard's quirky habits behind the wheel.
Mick McDonald learned to embrace the comic irony of his life's work years ago.
He had to. Because he's the man who taught Ballard how to drive.
Yes, that Ballard, land of pokey, heedless drivers. Who parallel park by sound, or leave the turn signal blinking whether they have any intention of ever turning or not.
"I would tell the kids: 'You guys are proud graduates of the Ballard Driving Academy!' " McDonald, 73, reminisced the other day. "I felt like I could have been a character in that skit."
He's talking about the 1980s and '90s KING-TV comedy show "Almost Live!" and its famed sendup of Ballard's quirky habits behind the wheel. (Dragging the seat-belt buckle on the pavement, say. Or using the curbs to steer.)
He's also recalling what makes him a local legend — 44 years teaching drivers ed to high-school kids in Seattle, most of them at Ballard High School.
His last day is Tuesday. Not because he's going willingly. After half a century, Seattle Schools has decided to eliminate what was a teen rite of passage. From now on, drivers ed in the city will be available only through private commercial outfits.
"It's the end of an era, for more than just me," McDonald says.
The fall of drivers ed is a sign of the times. The premise that every kid should have access to driver training was hatched as part of the idealistic Great Society in the 1960s.
McDonald started teaching it in 1968, and he remembers a "boom time" of jammed classes, as kids whose families previously couldn't afford it took full advantage of the subsidized courses.
At its peak, the Seattle Public Schools fledged 7,000 young drivers into the streets per year.
But about a decade ago, the state cut off the money, and costs for both insurance and gas have soared.
Today the public schools' course costs the same as the private ones, and the number of graduates has declined to 600.
So the district is ending it. This week McDonald and the handful of remaining instructors will put it in park for the last time.
"They said our program doesn't meet the core mission of the schools, which is to prepare all students to go to college," said Gerri Miller, the program's coordinator.
"I'm still shaking my head at that one," McDonald said. "Driving is a game of survival. It's as if we're not going to help prepare them for part of their survival anymore."
Kids whose families have the means — about $600 for a typical course — can get perfectly good drivers ed from the private sector. What about those who don't?
"They're on their own," McDonald said.
Some are simply not driving. The number of teens waiting until they're 18 to get a license has soared (which McDonald says is probably a good thing).
"But you know perfectly well that some are out there driving anyway, without instruction, without a license, without insurance," he said.
For his part, McDonald says his odometer was topping out, anyway.
"If I was a young father, and I heard my kid was being taught to drive by a 73-year-old, I might have a few concerns!" he laughed.
A Ballard High grad who went on to become the school's baseball coach, he guesses he taught 10,000 to 15,000 Ballardites to drive.
In 44 years of white-knuckled road sessions, he's proud to say his students had only two minor accidents — neither of which was their fault.
"That Ballard can't drive makes great comedy material, but it's a myth," McDonald says.
His daughter, Molly Hemmingsen, says she can't go anywhere in Ballard with her dad — the Fred Meyer, walking down Ballard Ave — without someone saying "Hey, there's the guy who taught me to drive!"
He says he left his students with the same speech before sending them out on the road:
"Your parents have mixed feelings right about now," he said, reciting it. "They want you to do this, to grow into adults. But they are terrified of getting that call in the middle of the night.
"So always remember one thing when you're behind the wheel: This isn't only about you."
Old Ballard wisdom for a lot more than driving.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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