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rite of passage

It only lasts a split second before disappearing. A surrendered emotion, instantly reined back in. Jonathon Zimmer is actually enjoying this, and there's a momentary pause while he seems to decide if it's okay to feel this way, or if it's a small betrayal.

Jonathon is a pretty ordinary 17-year-old. He gets decent grades, has a part-time job, and when I meet him for the first time, his shirt is half untucked. A lanky kid with straight brown hair, he is polite, yet a little shy.

Can't blame him. He has walked out of his school on a recent winter day to take a driving lesson. While there are frequently driving instructors parked out front of high schools, it's not often that instructor is Philippe Létourneau – BMW's chief driving instructor and a team member on Canada's Worst Driver. Jonathon watches the TV show. He's grinning as he shakes hands with the energetic Létourneau, a man who is clearly passionate about driving and cars. And talking.

In the middle of a paddock of regulation yellow school buses sits a trifecta of gleaming BMWs: a 2012 Valencia Orange 1 Series M Coupe, a 2012 Red Mini Coupe Cooper S, and a 2011 Blue 135i M Sport. The one thing they have in common? They all have manual transmissions.

Jonathon already knows how to drive; he has finished the classroom portion of his driver training, and is about to embark on the in-car. The obstacle before him isn't a looming road test: it's the car with the manual transmission sitting in his driveway back home.

His parents bought the 1999 BMW 328i a decade ago, and it only has 100,000 km on it. It's a beautiful car, but for a teen still in the early stages of driving, the clutch has proved daunting. It's an added layer of complication to a skill that is still new, and even the knowledge that this could be his car – this is his car – hasn't been enough to calm the demons of stall.

Practice, you're probably thinking. The kid just needs practice. You'd be right of course, and for many of us, learning to drive a stick was a rite of passage: the car owner sitting in the passenger's seat grinding his or her teeth as you grinded the gears, stalled on hills, and believed it would never work.

It's probably what Jonathon's dad planned, but it didn't work out that way. John Zimmer died unexpectedly a year ago at age 53; Jonathon had turned 16 just weeks before. For this teen, that particular rite of passage was suddenly altered, a Plan B never considered because men with 16-year-old sons don't bank on suddenly leaving them.

You might be planning just as John Zimmer was. It might be a motorcycle or the car you've been faithfully restoring – or just storing – that you hope will one day mean as much to your children as it does to you. You might be watching them grow, listening to them ask to ride it, to drive it, to do more than just wait patiently. You smile to yourself, knowing the wait is worthwhile, that it's about so much more than handing over a set of keys. When you give your children a possession or skill you treasure, you are giving them a piece of yourself.

Marion Zimmer, a new widow, watched her son back up in the driving process. Saddled with the unexpected overnight crush of complete responsibility, she recognized her son's struggle. While driver training on manual transmissions is available, it would have meant travelling outside their community, adding hours to a jammed schedule, and delaying Jonathon from getting his licence. She was fully prepared to give her son all the training he needed. Instead, she watched in dismay as his confidence evaporated. He repeatedly ask her to consider selling the car, and moving to an automatic.

"I thought about it. I did. But I drive a standard, and the BMW is a great car. I knew when he mastered it, he would be glad I hadn't sold it. But still ..." Her voice fades. How do you balance the intentions of your late husband against the hurt and frustration in a son you adore? The easy out was to sell the car. Instead, Marion asked me for help.

I considered teaching him myself, but realized the best instruction would come from the best instructor. With the help of BMW, we could give Jonathon the lesson of a lifetime.

It's a delicate dance, extending help to a teen who hasn't asked for it. And when the genesis of the problem is more emotional than mechanical, a misstep can do more harm than good. Enter Létourneau.

While he's an obvious fit for the BMW, there's a more important element to this pairing: Létourneau is a big brother presence, rather than a reminder of who is missing. That battery of sparkly BMWs we brought to Jonathon may have been a celebration of next steps, but the choice of car was definitely a nod to his dad.

"It sounds a little silly, but John was a 'man's man.' He'd always driven standards and he was going to teach Jonathon. He'd say, 'It's a guys thing to do. I'll teach him,' " says Marion.

We anticipate death will leave behind gaping holes and complications. We try to prepare for the financial, legal, and emotional fractures. We do and say all we can, but it's often the things not done, the things not said, that remain.

Deeply immersed in conversation before they even enter the orange 1-Series, Létourneau would later tell me that Jonathon was keenly digesting every description, every nugget of information he was being told. With Jonathon due to start a mechanical engineering degree in university this fall, Létourneau was thrilled to have a student who could understand what every engine component was doing, and when.

Throughout the afternoon, Létourneau used a variety of techniques designed to get Jonathon feeling the car, hearing the car and working in tandem with it. From the basics of seating position to mirror placement, Létourneau jumped in and out of the vehicle demonstrating every step. And when they were finally ready to face the clutch? All the way up to sixth gear – never once touching the accelerator.

More than a party trick, it's a perfect way to gauge the clutch action without worrying about co-ordinating the accelerator in the early going. For Jonathon, it was a focus on the mechanics, with Létourneau's steady, confident voice accompanying him at every step. Looping around that private lot, this studious teen did everything asked of him. When he'd mastered starting in first gear, Letourneau made him learn how to start in second. With the bar nudged ever higher, the student followed the teacher, confidence replacing the nerves he'd been pushing down.

Later over dinner with Létourneau, Marion listened to the duo step on each other's words as they animatedly relived the afternoon. Johnathon and Létourneau exchanged Facebook information as Létourneau related stories of his colourful racing career and the TV show that has made him so instantly recognizable to Jonathon.

"Mom, did you know you can drive a standard without touching the gas?" Jonathon asked her. She looked at him quizzically. "I've never heard that," she said.

"You can, and he's very good at it," Létourneau told her, nodding to his student.

"Don't worry, mom. Maybe I'll teach you later," Jonathon grinned.