The learning-to-drive thing was going well for my 15-year-old son, Ford. He only had one close call with a lamp post and he had quit stopping at green lights. He did still pray out loud for little children walking on the sidewalk — “Please don’t step off the curb, kid. Please just stay on the safety of that sidewalk” — but for the most part, driving with Ford had become routine.
Then I decided he needed to learn how to drive a standard.
No matter what you call it — “stick,” “manual,” “standard” — adding gear shifts into the mix is never easy for anyone, much less someone who has only had a permit for one week.
The reason Ford had to learn how to drive a standard is because only one of our two cars is an automatic, and if I eventually need him to cart his brothers to the library or out to camp, I don’t want “But I can’t drive stick” to be an excuse. Let me be clear: I’ve waited a long time to have a driver; there should be no excuses once I need him.
But I had another, secret motive for teaching Ford. In the era of distracted driving, there’s nothing like occupying the right hand with gear shifts to put a stop to texting-and-driving. Standard cars require that both feet and both hands are involved and busy. That doesn’t leave much room for texting-and-driving, or even eating-and-driving.
However, because Dustin was out-of-town and our other car was in the shop, Ford’s introduction to manual transmissions came earlier than planned, and with the least likely teacher: me. It’s not easy to teach someone how to drive a standard. It’s an entirely kinesthetic process, something you have to feel to learn, and once it’s committed to muscle memory, there is no explaining it.
Oh sure, I can hear Dustin and my dad telling me that it is not “entirely kinesthetic,” that there is, in fact, a mechanical explanation for when and how to change gears. But I don’t know those reasons, so they were little help. My method for teaching Ford went something like this: “You’ll go through the gears in order, 1, 2, 3, anytime the engine kind of whines and the RPMs get to about 3. And the clutch, well, it can’t really be explained. You’ll just have to feel it. So, put the car in first gear and let’s go.”
I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that I probably got whiplash during our first trip down the street. The Subaru bucked and lurched like a bull. The motion inside the car was so violent, my purse flew forward, hit the dashboard and then dumped all its contents onto the passenger-side floor. Walkers leaped for the safety of nearby yards and bushes. People gathered on the sidewalk to watch. Drivers darted out of our way. And somehow, Ford just couldn’t “feel it” yet.
Once Dustin returned home at the end of the week, and before he had gotten in the passenger seat, he gave me this instruction for dealing with new drivers: “You have to have patience when you’re teaching someone how to drive stick. Remember when you first learned? It takes time. And the best thing you can do is encourage him, stay calm and remind him to take deep breaths when he stalls. It’s all about staying calm. Panicking and yelling doesn’t help anything.”
Then, the next morning, Dustin said exactly this the first time he was a passenger while Ford was struggling to get into first gear: “Oh geez … good grief … easy on the … what the … oh geez … what are you doing? … you’re going to break … give it gas! Give it gas!”
I patted Dustin on the shoulder and said, “It just takes patience, honey. Remember?”
Eventually, I learned to sit back and laugh any time Ford stalled or made the car buck. (I also learned to zip my purse and keep it on the floor.) Even when Ford stalled multiple times in a row, I laughed. And then he laughed. Eventually, his brothers wanted to join us because it looked like we were having fun. We weren’t. The laughter was the nervous kind, usually preceded by Ford screaming, “No, not a stop sign! I don’t want to stop! Please, don’t make me stop because then I can’t start again!” When you’re learning to drive stick, anything that involves stopping is the worst.
I am happy to report, however, that other drivers were unexpectedly and uncharacteristically patient. Mostly, people just gave Ford a thumbs up or, yes, laughed. No one gave him the middle finger. No one peeled out from behind us. No one honked.
It was as if in this age of political chaos, when it seems none of us can agree on anything, all of us can still bond over this — the memory of being 15-years-old and stalling out through two cycles of a green light with ten cars behind you.