Where Logic Meets Love

Lessons in Driving... and Surviving

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

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Lessons in Driving... and Surviving | Faith Permeating Life

The stories about teachers shared on Sunday's post made me think it's probably time to share my horrible driver's education experience.

To get the proper context for this story, you have to understand that I was terrified of driving. At one point I said I never wanted to learn to drive, but by the time I got to high school I decided I'd go through with it. Then, I had time to get worked up about it because I turned 16 in November of my sophomore year but couldn't fit driver's ed into my regular school schedule, so I took it during summer school the following summer. (I missed the cutoff by a month to take it the summer before I turned 16.)

My dad took me out for some lessons once I got my permit, and I was just a nervous wreck. I remember one time he asked me to turn and I put on my turn signal, but I was so focused on the thousand other things I was trying to remember that I forgot to actually turn. My dad was smart enough to wait until I was past the intersection to calmly mention that I was supposed to turn, but that it was OK and I could just turn at the next light. I was embarrassed, but my dad was incredibly patient with me.

Several of my friends were taking driver's ed through school the same summer and we were allowed to pick our driving partners, so I figured it wouldn't be too bad. My best friend Missy and I paired up, which was great because she and I were always supportive of each other and I didn't have to worry about feeling judged.

By her, anyway.

The driving instructor we got was supposed to be one of the good ones, as I remember, probably because he was "cool," with his buzzed hair and sunglasses and his loud, joking style. If I'd had the kind of self-awareness then that I have now I probably would have realized that he was not going to be a good fit for me. Not that I could have done anything about it, but maybe I would have at least been prepared for what lay ahead.

Two problems became immediately apparent. The first was that he clearly favored Missy over me, something she doesn't dispute. This will become painfully obvious when I tell you about our final driving test.

The second was that he liked to listen to talk radio. LOUD talk radio. And no one was allowed to change the channel, least of all me.

(To be fair, it was actually a music station, but one that had a morning show during the time we had our lesson, so it was mostly talk.)

For Missy, he would sometimes change it to a country station instead, her favorite kind of music. Still ear-splittingly loud, but at least you could kind of mentally drown out the music in a way that I couldn't do with the talk radio. I always ended up listening to what they were talking about instead of thinking about the 50 different things that you have to remember when you're first learning to drive a car.

Considering how anxious I was and how hard it was for me to focus even with my patient dad in a silent car, you can imagine that my driving skills didn't exactly improve when I was put into a car blaring talk radio with an instructor who thought that my protests about the radio were hilarious. He would always say the same thing, "You need to learn to drive with distractions! What if people are talking in your car?" And I would always reply, "I am not distracted by people talking in the car. I am distracted by this radio station, and when I am the driver I will not choose to listen to loud, distracting radio stations, because that is something I have control over."

On one of the rare occasions that I argued with him so much that he switched to the country station, I must have started unconsciously singing along while he was talking to Missy, because I remember him saying, "Look! She's singing along! The music relaxes her!" I started to protest and he busted up laughing.

So that was the atmosphere in which I learned to drive.

I was an overly cautious driver. (See also: I was terrified of driving.) I usually waited until I had lots of space before I would turn out of a neighborhood onto a main road. And naturally, my instructor would berate me for "taking all day" to get us out of the neighborhood and just generally insult my judgment of when it was safe to move. I will never forget the one time he had to use the passenger-side brake to stop me from turning out in front of a car that was coming up too fast; I was mortified, but looking back it's not surprising that after having my safety instincts routinely insulted for several weeks that I would eventually go in the opposite direction and get overly daring just to shut him up.

You may be wondering why I didn't report our instructor for harassing me during our entire driving experience. This was because he happened to be the brother of the guy who was in charge of the whole driver's ed program, a guy who himself didn't have much of a reputation for being friendly. I decided I was safer just grinning and bearing it.

So then it came time for our final driving test. I don't remember exactly how it worked, but I think you had to pass your driver's ed final in order to get clearance to go to the DMV and take the actual written and driving tests to get your license. You would have points deducted anytime you made a mistake and you couldn't have more than 30 points deducted or do anything that was an "automatic fail" like the instructor having to use the passenger-side brake.

In case there was any doubt that he favored Missy over me, I present you with some snapshots of my driving final vs. Missy's driving final*:
  • Me: Told to stop on a neighborhood street and then do a "hill park." Note that the street in question, like many streets in Illinois, was completely flat. I asked whether I was supposed to do an uphill park or a downhill park. He gave me a smirk and said, "I can't tell you that," then refused to tell me if I did it correctly and whether he took any points off.
  • Missy: Tried to back around a corner and drove up onto somebody's lawn. His comment: "Hope they didn't like their grass!" No points deducted.
  • Me: Pulled up to a T-stop, to the left of which there was a row of big trees you couldn't see around. Stopped maybe a foot past the stop sign (still well behind the corner) so that I could actually see around the trees before turning right. The instructor said, "You just failed your final. ...But I'm going to be nice and only deduct 8 points instead."
  • Missy: Turned left in front of an oncoming car that had almost reached us. The instructor said, "Wow, you almost killed us there! ...But since we didn't die, I'll only take 4 points off."
In the end, Missy passed with no problem and I came a few points short of failing, but thankfully didn't.

Then, since our town's DMV was rumored to try to trick people into failing, my mom took me to a DMV in another town where most people there were really old people renewing their licenses. I almost cried with relief when the DMV examiner said she was going to try to give me slow, clear instructions and that if I had any questions or needed her to repeat anything, to just let her know. I was thrilled when she asked me to "please do an uphill park" (on yet another flat street, of course). I did everything perfectly -- except right at the beginning, when I was so nervous I put the car in Neutral and then hit the gas. Whoops.

Needless to say, driver's ed was a pretty terrible experience for me, and this doesn't even include the fact that the classroom portion was so incredibly boring it hurt. Like, I understand the phrase "bored to tears" now; I was so bored in that class that I wanted to break down crying because I felt like I was trapped in the classroom and that it would never end.

And each time it did end, I got to go spend half an hour being humiliated and harassed about my driving skills. Yippee!

Please share your driver's ed experiences in comments! I hope they were better than mine.

*I should note that I'm not trying to imply that Missy is or was a bad driver, because she totally isn't. These were probably the only two mistakes she actually made during her test, but they just stood out in my mind because of our instructor's extremely muted reaction to them compared to his apparent determination to fail me.

Also, I got Missy's permission to use her name in this post :) Thanks, Missy!


  1. We don't have driver's ed as part of school. They do in Canberra, but not anywhere else in Australia. Which is kind of weird, but off topic. Basically, I get all nauseated and panicky even sitting behind the wheel of a car, so I've never learnt to drive. Sure, it's kind of weird that I'm 28 and can't drive. But I'm more than okay with it!! (And really glad I didn't have to deal with a horrific driver's ed experience like yours... O.o)

  2. @Melbourne on my mind
    Interesting that it's not part of school for you! At least where we lived, people also had the option to take driving lessons privately and get clearance there that they were ready to take their license exams--that's what my mom had my brother do after my terrible experience, and my sister will probably do the same. But doing it through school is free, so that's the advantage.

    You're not the only one I know who's in their 20s and doesn't have a driver's license. If you've found a way to make it work, good for you! If it wasn't considered so normal to have a driver's license, we might have more people carpooling, taking public transit, etc., and that's certainly not a bad thing.

  3. [terribly long commnent, but I think you'll enjoy the story] My experiences were hardly any better. Except for the teacher being a jerk, it was very similar. Our teacher loooooved listening to talk radio, and it was a sports show I guess because I have very clear memories of the two major issues discussed in the show: Sammy Sosa's corked bat and a $5000 lighter bought by some other athlete.

    Anyway, I was horrendously terrified of driving (and still am pretty nervous about it). A few days before driver's ed was supposed to start, I tell my dad, "you need to show me how to drive before we start driving in driver's ed." His response was basically, "that's what your book is for." *facepalm* No Father, Macha does not learn how to perform a highly physical task from reading a book. So he finally takes me driving, and he was anything but patient or calm. I think he really, truly believed that driving is an instinctual thing that anyone can do, and that I was only doing things wrong because I just wasn't paying attention. Well the fact was I am just very lacking in hand-eye coordination (why I was terrible at sports too), and it took me a lot longer to develop a muscle memory to do all those things at once that you need to do when you're driving. My dad was in no way helpful.

    My teacher seemed to have the same idea that driving was instinctual, and I could see the subtle signs that he was frustrated with me when my nerves got to me and I needed to be reminded several times in order to learn certain skills (like, okay about here is where you turn on your blinker, or, remember to pull out further before your turn on a left turn).

    So the long and the short of it is, I did not get my license when I was 16. I did not get my license in high school. I got a new permit at age 20 (the day before my 21st birthday), and only so that I could go out and drink the next night. Then, when I asked my big sister to be a bridesmaid at my wedding, she stipulated that I had to get my driver's license before I got married. It was kind of patronizing of her, but at the same time I'm glad I had a motivator to get me going.

    So I spent much of the next year driving with Husband (then fiance), who was fantastically, amazingly patient and helpful in explaining things and sort of having a continuous conversation whenever we were in the car about how to respond to this or that situation. He never made me feel stupid or incompetent (which no other person had ever done for me before) when I didn't know something or made a mistake. But it was still his fault I failed my test the first time, because I cut through the left hand lane every time I made a left turn and stopped past the stop sign/white line so many times. Then I failed a SECOND time because about a minute into the test I failed to signal on a turn: automatic fail. I passed on the third try though! Advice for anyone who's nervous: test in the winter when there's snow on the ground. They expect you to take your time/go slowly, so it's easier to concentrate on remembering all those rules.

  4. @Macha
    Eek! What a stressful experience. I'm sorry you had to deal with your dad's and teacher's impatience. I hope that when I have kids I am able to remember how difficult driving was for me; you do get that muscle memory over time where you don't have to think about everything all the time, so it can be hard to remember that it's not like that at first.

    Frustratingly, my brother seemed to get the "driving instinct" way faster than I did. Fortunately he's younger than me so I didn't have to follow in his footsteps, which probably would have made it a lot harder, but I kind of wanted to believe it was this difficult for everyone and then he just breezed through it. So hearing stories like yours makes me feel less alone, for sure!

  5. As the featured friend in this post, I feel I should comment! :) I do want to confirm that our instructor did favor me. I don't actually remember the four instances you describe from our final, but I remember two others, not much better:

    Our instructor said, "Okay, change lanes now," and when I checked that I had room and changed lanes, he immediately said, "You shouldn't have changed lanes in an intersection." Deliberate set-up.

    I pulled into a left-turn lane and the green arrow turned yellow. I thought I had enough time, so I started to pull into the intersection, then decided I didn't, so I stopped and reversed. Minus 4 points (probably should have been minus more!).

    I also remember him making you do a left turn on a green light (so you had to yield to oncoming traffic) and we hadn't practiced that yet, so we didn't know if you could stop in the middle of the intersection. So you just kept rolling forward, waiting for an opening to turn, and he waited until after you turned to say, "You shouldn't pull out that far." Jerk.

    I don't remember the radio being an issue, but I do remember him as annoying, teasing, and pretty harsh.

    Also, for clarification, if we passed our school driving test by missing less than 10 points, we didn't have to take the DMV driving test - which was a nice bonus. I think I missed 9.

    I am still glad we did it together - I can't imagine trying to go through all that with someone I didn't know or didn't like! Thank goodness that part of our lives is over. :)


  6. @Missy
    Thanks for backing me up on this :)

    Yeah, the changing lanes thing was ridiculous--I mean, we pretty much practiced on streets where there were entrances to subdivisions every couple hundred feet, and those were considered "intersections" and you couldn't change lanes within 100 feet of an intersection, but he'd tell us to change lanes and then tell us we were in an intersection or too close to an intersection. So stupid.

    I totally remember the left-turn-on-green incident (probably because it was an instance of getting scolded when I didn't know any better). To this day I rarely turn into the far lane and when I do, I think of him telling me that I wasn't supposed to do that.

    The radio was a huge issue for me. I mean, I don't think I was generally as outspoken then as I am now, but I do remember constantly fighting with him about the radio.

    I forgot that part about getting to skip the DMV test if you missed fewer than 10 points. I'm pretty sure I blew my chances of that about 2 minutes into the driving final :P

    I'm glad we did it together too! If only to look back and swap horror stories, haha. <3

  7. Another thing we have in common! I resisted learning to drive out of fear. In 8th grade I began saying I was NEVER going to drive, and my grandma replied, "Learn all you can while you're young so you'll have time when you're old to learn the things that haven't been invented yet!" (I think that is very good advice for life in general!) She died the following year, but her advice kept echoing in my mind as I declined driver's ed--which was not required in Oklahoma unless you wanted a permit before turning 16--to free up time for classes that seemed more useful. I've never regretted THAT decision because everyone's tales of driver's ed sounded like such a waste of time, and whenever I met any of the teachers they were all jerks. But I did grudgingly agree to get a permit when I was 17 and have my dad teach me to drive. He was very patient about it. I got my license just before turning 18 but let it lapse after moving to a city with public transit; I didn't drive at all for almost 4 years, until I got a job where they said I would need a car to get to research sites--but then, after I'd bought the car, they assigned me to a study conducted on campus, 1 mile from my home and on the bus route!! Grrr.

    Anyway, I think my grandma was right: It's good to know HOW to drive, even if you don't do it much. You might need to do it in an emergency. And it's good to learn on a standard transmission because then driving an automatic is so easy by comparison!

    My partner went to driving school at 16 but ended up not getting a license because of the high cost of insurance for a teen boy driver in the city--and because he lived near public transit. Once I had a car, though, we began taking road trips in which I felt very burdened by having to do all the driving--and then I started having frequent migraines, which meant that either we'd have to pause a trip until I felt better or I'd have to drive with a migraine. So I re-taught him to drive. I'm sure it was easier than teaching him from scratch, but he'd forgotten a lot in 15 years. We practiced in a cemetery because its hilly, winding, narrow roads were challenging but had almost no traffic--and I could amuse myself reading names on tombstones as we passed them. He finally got his license FOUR DAYS before our son was born, so that worked out nicely. :-)

  8. @'Becca
    I love your grandma's advice! You're right, that is good advice for life.

    That's a pain that your job told you you'd need a car when you didn't! It sounds like everything worked out well in the end, though. I like the idea of learning to drive in a cemetery--I'll have to tuck that one away for when we're teaching our kids to drive.

    Thanks for sharing your story!


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