Driver’s Education didn’t take an entire year at my high school. It didn’t even take an entire semester. When you signed up for Driver’s Ed, you actually took about a month and a half of real, actual instruction on how to drive a car. I took Driver’s Ed my sophomore year.
Anyone, including the teacher of the class, will tell you that the real knowledge doesn’t kick in until you begin driving. Like most of high school, class is about killing time until you graduate. The best thing to do is to fantasize about the girl sitting in front of you. Her smell will make you forget your own name; she will play with her hair, tying it up, then letting it back down. She’ll hunch over in her desk a little and you will notice how tiny her shoulders are.
The rest of the semester was filled with Health, a perverse joke played on us by a group of gym teachers. They sat around between class joking and talking sports. The upside of Health was that I got to read a book about Ebola. But back to Driver’s Ed.
There were a thousand ways to get extra credit. It was almost as if the teacher didn’t want us to learn the regular way, by reading the textbook and taking tests. We could just turn in an endless series of extra credit projects. I think I finished Driver’s Ed with a 240% out of 100.
One of these throwaway extra credit assignments was to design a billboard extolling seatbelt safety. I almost didn’t do this one at all, but on my way to school one morning I got a brainwave and quickly sketched out my idea. The whole process, from thought to completion, was maybe 15 minutes.
A man, first shown sitting upright, is thrown slowly through the air. He lands on his head, then bounces back up, then lands on his crotch, then bounces again, and finally comes to rest on his back. The tagline underneath read: SEATBELTS: THE RIDE ISN’T THE SAME WITHOUT THEM. The man, had he been wearing a seatbelt, would have remained in the car. A much better outcome for him, I imagine.
When I turned the paper in for extra credit, my teacher asked if I wanted to enter it into the contest. “Sure,” I said, not thinking about it.
A little over a month later (when we had moved into the Health portion of the class), my teacher told me I had won the seatbelt contest. I was flabberghasted. What did that even mean?
My dad drove me downtown. He made a joke about making sure we wore our seatbelts when he picked me up from school. I hadn’t yet gotten my driver’s license, an irony that went unnoticed by the group at the awards ceremony. The mayor of Tucson was a no-show, a snub I will remember until my dying day. The group, including representatives from the police department and Golden Eagle Distributors, were all very pleased with my design. They asked if I could add color, which I did happily. I probably should have redrawn the whole thing, but at that point in my artistic career I hadn’t learned the joy of revising. It didn’t matter to them; they loved that I had made it funny.
It must have been popular with the sponsors because it remained up for almost two years. I have a clear memory of a girl telling me she’d seen it when we were seniors. I could not for the life of me figure out how to parlay that into asking her out.
In spite of my fame, I didn’t get big-headed. My stride remained uncocky. Though I haven’t won any big contests recently, I don’t dwell on my glory days in high school. I let them exist in my mind (and now, on this blog) as milestones. I know I’m capable of greatness; the Tucson police force says so.
What I did learn was that sometimes the best ideas are the least worked-over. I try to remember this when I write comics. Leave the good ideas alone. I also learned that a throwaway idea can sometimes prove the most enduring.