For most people in West Virginia, sophomore year of high school was basically centered around getting your license. You took Drivers Ed with whatever assistant coach was teaching it that year, you took a day off school and went to the local state police barracks, then one of the ladies went with you in your parent’s car, and if you got marginally close to the curb on the hill behind the barracks, you got your license.
Sometimes though, the road to that license was a little bumpy. For reasons still unknown to me, my parents never let me get behind the wheel of anything until I had my learner’s permit. But once I had it, my dad decided he was going to teach me to drive, probably because he believed deep in his soul that my mother, and basically everyone in the known universe, was a terrible driver. He firmly believed he was the best driver ever, and therefore, The Master would teach me.
Well The Master decided that I should start my driving career by learning to drive a stick shift. For those of you out there who have never learned how to drive a stick shift, and have suffered derision from your friends who do know how: too bad. Because learning to drive a stick shift is an art. You have to follow the rules of the road while also following the rules of your car, listening carefully for just the right moment to shift up or down gears, and use both feet to do it. So when someone says they can drive a stick shift, you give them the props they deserve.
It’s a miracle that I didn’t quit driving after the first day of my dad trying to teach me to drive a stick. We luckily live on a one lane road with zero traffic, so it was a perfect place for me to stall out over and over on a Sunday afternoon. Three hours of him going “It’s a feel-thing! Just feel it!” And me in the driver’s seat, still accidentally stomping the brake when I should have been hitting the clutch, wondering what the heck I was supposed to be “feeling.” Dad finally had to give up after the last brake-stomp, when I may or may not have given him minor whiplash.
Truth be told, he was not a good teacher. Great driver, not a great teacher, and he knew that. So he set aside his prejudices for other drivers’ driving, and turned me over to my mother (or maybe he just gave up.) He only ever let me drive him later in life, and I knew how sick he was when I didn’t get a lecture on the way to his chemo treatments about how cruise-control was the devil.
Mom, on the other hand, was a fantastic teacher. Not because she’s an exceptional driver (she actually is really good, thanks to 40 years of I-77 winter driving), but because she doesn’t get overly excited when you screw up. If I stalled out, no problem! Just start back up. If I stomped the brake too hard, she just gave a gentle reminder to tap it. She was patient and understanding, and since she has a real gallows sense humor, found my driving screw-ups almost endearing.
Take the time she was teaching me interstate driving. I was making the left turn onto the interstate from the intersection of 33 and the road that takes you to Jackson General. I’m first in line at the red light, the light turns green, I put it in gear, and I stall out. I proceeded to stall out about five times. The line of cars behind me were honking, my brother in the back seat was fuming, and my mom just said “try it again.” And finally, with seconds to spare before the light turned red again, I got the car into gear, made a speedy left turn, and got on the interstate heading home. All was well, for about five miles.
Funny thing about interstates: you have to exit them eventually. And what was at the bottom on the Fairplain exit but my early driving nemesis: a stop sign. If you’re saying to yourself, “I’ll bet she stalled out again,” you must have been watching me from that old gas station that used to be across the exit before Loves came in. This time was even worse than before. I honestly cannot remember how many times I stalled out, but it was getting to the point where even my sainted mother was going “Maybe I should take over.” But finally, just as I pushed the clutch at the right moment, and the gears shifted just right, BAM! We got rear-ended by another car. And my first thought was, “I hope they broke something so I can stop trying to get this car into gear.”
(Side note to that story: the person that hit us turned out to be one of my cousins, so he felt pretty lucky to hit us and not someone who might sue him. My brother, in the backseat, on the other hand, started wailing at the top of his lungs for my mom to take the wheel because, “She’s going to kill us! She’s going to kill us!” To say that Colton is still permanently traumatized from the experience of being with me while I was learning to drive is not an overstatement.)
Eventually, I did get the hang of clutching and shifting, but still, there was something wrong with my driving, and even my mom couldn’t figure out why I was constantly weaving all over the road (this was before cell phones, so no blaming this on texting). So she did what all people who believe in the power of education do: sent me to driving school. I spent a spring break taking a class, and had three private lessons, and on lesson two, after a few harrowing hours spent weaving down the side streets of Charleston, the instructor turned to me and said, “Are you looking at the road in front of you when you drive, or are you looking the end of the car hood?” And just like that, my driving issues cleared up. Turns out, no one thought to tell me that you look to the horizon when you drive, not directly in front of the car. From there, I was sure it’d be smooth sailing to my license, and the freedom of the road.
And it was, almost. I’d like to tell you that I immediately turned sixteen, went into the State Police barracks, and walked away with a terrible photo on my brand-new license. But that’s not what happened, because I forgot the cardinal rule of taking your drivers test: always take it in a car you’re familiar with. Because what’s the first thing you get asked to do? Show us your emergency flashers. Guess what Grandma Kate, who took me to get my license forgot to do? You guessed it, although bless her heart, when she realized I didn’t know where her car’s flashers were, she tried to cheat for me by standing behind the test administrator and miming to where I could find the buttons. Look, I’m sure all y’alls grandmas are nice, but if they aren’t willing to try and cheat for you during your driver’s test, then they are “okay” at best.
Second time was the charm: I got the pregnant instructor who just seemed happy I could use my turn signal and got within a foot of the curb during the parallel parking bit, and walked out with a shiny new license. While my mother and State Farm might occasionally say otherwise, I became a pretty competent driver over the twenty-plus years I’ve commuted all over Appalachia.
So you 15-16-year-old kids, take this driving advice to heart: one, look at the horizon, not the hood. Two, find out where your emergency flashers are. And three, if you have the chance, learn to drive a stick. If you still aren’t great at driving, you’ll at least get to be smug to all your friends who only drive automatics. And smug beats skill every time, even if you’re insurance rate says otherwise.