Thursday, February 28, 2008

The fine line of respect

I've been very conscious of class and privilege issues lately. Most of my classmates are blue collar guys, construction workers or similar, who are getting into trucking because they've lost their jobs, or have seen enough peers lose their jobs to know they need to diversify their skills and pick a more dependable industry. They are looking for local driving routes rather than long haul jobs because they have families who need them at home every night to watch the kids.

And I come in with my big words and my middle class adventuring bravado and say to anyone who'll ask that I'm here so I can get paid to travel. For me, this is a year or two off from my regular life. This is fun for me, I get to drive things and get dirt under my nails and feel like a tomboy kid again, but it's temporary and I know it, so I'm not stressing the finer points, not worrying if this will continue paying my mortgage in 10 or 15 years.

The reason I'm so conscious of these class differences is because I have a lot of respect for my classmates. They are good, honest people; many of them have been dealt very crappy hands in life; they've been humbled. And a part of me feels like I'm disrespecting them. I hate the connotation of disrespect in the word "slumming," but I can't help but feel like that's exactly what I'm doing. The trick, I suppose, it to keep all this this in mind and consciously avoid any possible disrespect.

The one other woman in my class is a construction worker; she once went to school to become a paralegal, but hated working in an office so much that she took a job shoveling cement to get out of it, and has been happy ever since. I wonder how many people she disappointed by going back, from the hard-won white collar back to dirty blue. I think of her story often, as a reminder that the most important thing is doing what feels right for yourself.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Ladies first

My driving instructor for the first few weeks, starting with today's disaster of a driving lesson, is a crotchety old man who's said to be one of the best instructors at the school. My classmates and I were all under the impression that our first day of field training would be spent inspecting the truck and otherwise tooling around. Instead, we did a short inspection and took turns driving the rig around the yard, hooking it up to trailers and learning to back up. "Ladies first," the instructor said, and handed me the key.

"Demoralizing" is a good way to describe the experience, or "humbling." It would have helped if I had EVER IN MY LIFE driven stick shift before. But I haven't, and the instructor had assumed we all had, so after another student and I stalled out a few times he backtracked and went back to basics - but not before yelling at me, "Why didn't you hit the clutch?" when I tried to brake and stalled out; "Because I didn't know I was supposed to," I replied, and stumbled out of the truck on shaky legs. Thankfully we're not leaving the truck yard until the end of the week. By then I hope to have a better grasp on this stuff.

But other than my first-day failure actually driving the thing, it was an incredible feeling to be up there in that tank of a vehicle, encased in thousands of pounds of steel, all high and seemingly invincible.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Woman on the road

Turns out my classroom instructor (the person teaching my class all we need to know about getting a learners permit, not the actual driving instructor) was the first woman to drive trailers full of rocket launchers for NASA.

Here's her story: she was studying photography in college in San Francisco 30 years ago, then decided to take some time off school to earn some tuition money. Landed a job driving a van for a company that also had some trucks hauling hazmats. Got into the cab on a dare from one of the truck drivers who said something about women not being able to drive trucks, and ended up driving for the next 15 years, hauling things like tanks and explosives, sometimes gone from home for more than a year straight.

One day, she and three others drivers showed up in Cape Canaveral as a convoy to pick up some NASA rocket launchers. The dispatcher told them women were not allowed to drive. Several hours and a lot of hell-raising later, she broke that rule once and for all.

The one other woman in my class (who works for a local construction company and wants a CDL in order to haul rock and cement) was enraged by this story. "Man, I would have clocked him right then and there," she said. "Well," the instructor replied, "it's because I didn't react that way and instead just got the job done back then, that you can have that reaction and you can work in construction with no problems now."

After class, I tell her my reasons for being in truck school, and she tells me some of her own story, about taking her cameras on year-long jaunts around the country and about being one of the only women on the road all those years ago, and confirms for me that this is absolutely the perfect place for me right now in my life. She says the road will show me better than anything else just what it is that I am meant to write.

I had assumed most of my class would be there to learn about long-hauling it, but instead most of them have families they can't leave and are dead-set on doing local work. I express my surprise at this, and she sighs and talks about how the wives of many new truckers have never left their hometowns and are afraid of their men doing so and generally being terrified of being on their own, as a result calling their faraway husbands when a pipe breaks in the house instead of just calling a plumber. "I want to start a class just for these women, to teach them how to take care of their own lives," she says.

The rain has cleared by the time I walk out of the classroom, an hour after everyone else had left. The yard is quiet; it smells like mud and grease and possibility. I can feel my life, full of highs and lows and twists and turns, stretch out before me like a mighty interstate highway.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Truck school observations, Chapter 1

I am surprised to see several women in the room when I walk into the truck school orientation. (Classes don't officially start until Monday, but tonight they hand out paperwork and tell us what to expect from the next seven weeks.) But it only takes a second to realize that these women are wives the actual students have brought along for the open orientation session. One of them hangs on to her husband's arm the entire time; she is small like a bird, dressed in spike heels and a frilly skirt, long earrings dangling past her shoulders and partially covered by long, meticulously styled hair. Later on, the instructor uses her as an example of what not to wear to class; everyone laughs and she says, "Good thing I'm not a student here."

I sit next to a couple around my age. The husband has all the papers spread out in front of him; the wife is playing with his school-issued pens. When the sign-up sheet is passed around, he signs it and turns to hand it to the guy behind him; when I reach for it he gives me a surprised look and says he didn't think I was a student. I can feel my lip curling and my shoulders squaring, my body trying to instinctively distance itself from every other woman in the room. When the instructor says long hair must be tied back while working on the trucks and the class laughs at the bird-like wife, I pull mine back in an angry ponytail.

This is what it will be like, I tell myself. Many of these guys will not take me seriously, I will need to prove myself on a daily basis. It's a damn good thing I enjoy having something to prove.