When you're a progressive Democrat living in the Commonwealth of Virginia, you have a lot of 'splainin' to do. The motto "Virginia is for Lovers" may endure on faded t-shirts , but it doesn't apply if you're gay or anti-gun or pro-choice. A lot of the Ole Southern Boy legacy endures here and we are hardly a bastion of visionary thinking or legislation.
And yet, there is one shining beacon of brilliance that I witnessed yesterday in the Arlington County Courthouse and which makes me want, for a moment, to brag about the state in which I've resided for 18 years. Virginia is the only state in the nation that requires all of its new drivers under age 18 to participate in a juvenile licensing ceremony. I know this because Katie Couric told me so.
In the blink of an eye, my toddler has grown to a lovely young woman who had taken driving classes, practiced driving on many of the area's roads (she won't merge onto the Beltway until she's middle-aged if I have any say in it), and had mastered most of the challenges of parking. But unlike the other 49 states where a driver's license is handed over by a sullen employee of the DMV, Virginia elevates the life passage into a ritual that will long be remembered by both parents and teens.
First came the "summons" to appear in court. The presence of my daughter and myself was required, and she was sternly informed that she had to dress "appropriately" for court. On the appointed day we headed to the Courthouse in mid-afternoon where we were met with a phalanx of teenagers and their parents. Most of the teens appeared nervous in their suits or dresses. They huddled with one another outside the Family Courtroom as parents beamed or fidgeted, all Blackberries and other electronic devices being banned from the building. Several of the young people milling around had been in preschool with Hannah and were still recognizable. Was it possible all of these 16 and 17 year olds were going to be next to me in traffic? I remember when they were still mastering Pull-ups!
After signing documents, we filled the benches of the courtroom and watched a video - hosted by Arlington native Katie Couric - illustrating how easy it is for a teen to violate driving laws. Reminders about wearing seatbelts, never having alcohol in the car, being an attentive driver were all woven into the narrative. Then a personal injury attorney told some stories of teens who had had their licenses taken away, and he sternly told us all that Virginia parents can confiscate their children's licenses for any reason in the first six months. And he warned our children that a representative of the DMV would help us in that aim if necessary.
Finally, a robed Family Court Judge handed out the licenses, intoning a solemn "Good luck" to some of the recipients, including my child. He dismissed us with the words, "I hope I never see you in my courtroom again." The room emptied quickly as about 80 of Arlington's teens celebrated their first moments as fully licensed drivers. Hannah admitted that she had been nervous going to the courthouse and that it had left an indelible impression on her.
It feels good to be proud of my home state, even for a moment. I can't find any statistics proving that the juvenile licensing ceremony has reduced teen accidents in Virginia, but I know for one teen and her mom it reminded us of the gravity of earning a right to drive.