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Driving with Sonya

One of the significant news items over the past week was the story about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia finally granting women the right to drive. Beyond my immediate and obvious reaction of, “It’s about time; what took so long?”, I thought about the women themselves and what it meant for them. In particular, I wondered about Saudi women in their 80s: How many years did these women wait for this opportunity, only to find that perhaps it came a little too late? Will this group of women be able to take advantage of this right?

My mother Sonya, who celebrates her birthday today, first sat behind a wheel as a teenager and has now been driving for (I won’t say how many) years. It remains the way that she and my father go out for dinner, visit family, meet friends, attend the opera, and see movies. Even with two artificial hips, bad feet, and an arm in constant pain, she settles herself into the driver’s seat and is able to drive for hours. Six hours to Montreal—“Nothing,” she says. A cross country drive? “I could still do it if my body was able. It’s not the driving; it’s the sitting.”

In the movie “Driving Miss Daisy,” the title character’s son took her keys away at what the movie perceived as an advanced age of 72. My mother has gone well past that. Her skill, stamina, and directional sense are remarkable. Google Maps? Waze? Forget it. Ask her how to get anywhere, and she builds the map in her head. If she makes a wrong turn, she can easily find her way back to the route.

As impressive as these feats are for a woman of “a certain age”, for Sonya it is normal. It is just what she does. However, I think the real story is not what she is still able to achieve now as an octogenarian, but what the last six decades of driving has meant for her—and what this means in general as a symbol of independent women who helped build this country in the 20th century.

I don’t want to push this too far and say that driving itself was the act that brought about independence. Rather, the convergence of the automobile, 20th century infrastructure, and our educational system, along with smart and resourceful women like my mother made things happen that would not otherwise have occurred.

My mother Sonya grew up in Bayside, Queens and commuted to Queens College, where she met my father Arny. She married at 20, got her degree, and was soon teaching students at Baldwin High School who were barely younger than she was. She made a name for herself teaching English, speech, and public speaking—always wanting the students who were the toughest, whom others had given up on. When we later moved to Baldwin, and years after she was teaching there, she sometimes ran into former students who remembered her fondly.

After taking some years off from teaching to raise me and my sister Leesa (with some time spent working in real estate), Sonya went back to teaching, this time in the NYC Board of Education. She taught some of the toughest kids, but also had the SP classes—students who at the time were skipping a grade from 7th to 9th. During this time, she attained an extraordinary work-life balance. I recall her coming home every afternoon, arriving just minutes after I did. She got dinner on the table every night (and everyone who knows Sonya is familiar with just how well she cooks) and, without interfering, managed to stay on top of our schoolwork.

Teaching in the 1970s was both rewarding and constraining. My parents, both independent thinkers, found it difficult to be under constant departmental oversight. More difficult, they had stood up against the powerful teachers’ union which, in the late 1960s, had fought against community control of schools. The ensuing strike of 1968 was as much about race as about local control, and my father ended up on the side of Black teachers, who were seeking finally to have some influence in the system. My mother had not come back to teaching yet, but she fully supported my father. Later on, the union was able to force my parents out of their positions in the 1970s, he as an assistant principal and she as a teacher. When the dust settled, my mother had to scramble her way to find other positions—and here is where she arguably made her most significant impact.

I recall the 1980s, when I would come home on a break from college or law school and, naturally, sleep as late as I could. A light sleeper all my life, I would hear my mother get up at about 5am, and leave the house before 6:00. In those days, she would drive all the way from Baldwin to the Bronx for her work administering an outreach center, taking charge of educating what we now call “overage, under-credited students.” These young people, in their late teens or even early 20s, had experienced failure multiple times in their lives and now depended on educators like my mother for their pathway to a high school degree. She didn’t rescue all of them, but she made a significant difference for many.

Her final act with the Board of Education was with the Office of High School Admissions, where she assisted newly arriving students and found appropriate high school placements for them. At the beginning of the school year, she ran a huge transfer center for the borough of Queens, leading a team of staff and retired professionals who would process hundreds of newly entering or transferring students a day. This was an organizational feat in which rules had to be followed, families had to be taken care of, staff had to be managed, and most importantly students’ needs had to be served. This is what always motivated my mother—what was best for the child? When taking an individual case herself, she listened intently to the family, figured out what they were seeking (in Urdu, Russian, Spanish, Haitian Creole, or English), and laid out fair and fitting choices within the rules of a complex system.

These days, in her well-earned retirement, Sonya's main foci include family (still making sure Arny is well fed and being fully and equally attentive to all three grandchildren), opera (regularly driving into Lincoln Center), and health (she has a weekly calendar in her head of her and Arny's medical appointments). She insists on planning activities, such as dinners out, bridge with Howie and Dena, movies, and even vacations (at least to visit Leesa in Santa Monica).

Millions of women like my mother Sonya entered the workforce in the 20th century and, taking advantage of new opportunities, made their world better for people who would follow. She was no hero; this was just what she did. The work was difficult and not often rewarding, and this is what makes it so impressive.

Somewhere in Saudi Arabia today, there is likely to be an 80-year-old woman who wishes she could have this same opportunity, but knows it is too late. But there is also a girl of 17 who will soon sit behind the wheel of a car, follow her own map and her own dreams, and--like my mother Sonya—help make a society better than what was, until a few days ago, ever possible. She and others like her will, like my mother, rewrite history.

Dear Mom (Sonya)—Psst…This post is all for you! Happy Birthday!

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