Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Nervous as a School Girl

The day I turned 16, my dad took me down to the DMV so I could take the written theory test to get my learner's permit. It was a multiple choice test, based on rules of the road and other facts the state of Ohio deemed important for drivers. I'd ben given a booklet to study in advance of the test, but I don't think I even opened it. The test was going to be so easy.

Well, the test wasn't easy. Instead of driving the car home with my dad cowering in the passenger seat, I was sulking in the backseat and indignantly sputtering about the stupid test. How was I supposed to know the legal tread depth for tires? If it it okay on a divided highway to drive past a stopped school bus on the other side of the highway? What to do if the engine overheated?

I was mortified that I'd failed the test and wasn't about to let it happen again. I practically memorised that booklet. A week later, I had my learner's permit. Driving lessons consisted of 8 hours of classroom time (which was usually watching the same movies and hearing dubious advice like if you prang someone's car, take pictures because they could take a sledgehammer to the car later and then say you did all that damage) and 8 hours of in-car instruction (four 2-hour sessions). My instructor was named Linda and she could have stepped out of one of those Adams family cartoons in the New Yorker.

I was decent at everything except the reversing exercise. We didn't have to parallel park for the test, but we had to reverse the car through this configuration of cones and then pull the car back out. If you knocked over a cone, you failed. If you rattled a cone, it was 5 points off. You couldn't rattle more than 4 cones or you'd fail. I was an absolute nightmare at this. I blamed the car. It was a big old boat of a Pontiac Bonneville and I had only the vaguest notion where the front and rear bumpers were.

My formal instruction was done within a few weeks, but my parents wanted me to get more practise before taking the test. So I waited. And waited. And waited. It seemed like forever. Remember, my birthday had been in July. Finally, in October, they agreed to let me take the test.

My test was on a Tuesday and I got to miss the first few classes of the day to take it. Because I was going straight to school after the test, I was wearing my uniform. An ugly double-pleated polyester skirt (like this one only mine was uglier because it was brown) and a pastel Oxford shirt. In school, the shirt had to be tucked in but I always had it hanging out until I crossed the school's threshold.

I'm sure I was nervous, but I don't remember that now. I remember being excited (although, now that I think about it, I was a little apprehensive about the reversing part). All my energy was going into picturing what this license meant to me. Freedom. I was one of the first of my friends to get a license and the boy I liked lived on the other side of town and didn't drive yet. Passing this test was going to change my life and I was so ready for it.

The on-road portion of the test went quickly but I found the roads around the test facility confusing. (I ended up getting points deducted for driving up the middle of the road.) The first time the examiner wrote something down, I asked her what she was writing and she told me to just ignore her and mind the road. I took that advice.

When the on-road portion was over, we returned to a sectioned-off area of the car park for the cone reversing portion. My hands were sweating and I just kept reminding myself that if I felt the cone, that I should adjust. I think that part of the test took me about six years. It was excruciating. I hit exactly the number of cones you could hit and still pass. The state of Ohio decided I was competent to operate a motor vehicle. Whooohooo.

My dad let me drive to school and I broke my first traffic law within 15 minutes of passing the test. I was at an intersection, stopped for a red light, waiting to turn right. I checked the sign, looked around, and made my turn. "That was a no turn on red," scolded my father, although in a mocking and amused manner since I hadn't done anything really dangerous. (It's not as though there was traffic bearing down on us when I made my turn.)

"Only on school days, during school hours," I replied. He started laughing at me. I had turned right on red, on a school day, during school hours, wearing my school uniform, while driving to school and then had tried to use it not being a school day as my defense. Clearly, I was lucky that hadn't come up on the test.

Why the trip down memory lane? My driving test is tomorrow morning and I've been thinking about the difference in my attitude. I'm extremely nervous about and pretty much obsessed with the test. Whereas 16-year old me focused on the benefits of passing (freedom, the ability to visit the far-away soon-to-be-first-boyfriend), 35-year old me can only see the hassles of failing (waiting for another test, having to spend more time and money on lessons, having the ignominy of admitting I'd failed).

It's no exaggeration when I say I've been thinking about this test all day. I even rang my driving instructor this afternoon to ask how to use the first roundabout on the test route if I'm instructed to take the second exit. (In my three lessons, we only did that once and he yelled at me for cutting right through the roundabout.) I've been whispering to myself "mirror-signal-manouver." I'm considering going out right now to practise turnabouts, reversing around corners, and hill-starts. I want to tatto "keep off the clutch" onto the back of my hand.

That last one, it seems, is my most serious bad habits. I didn't even realise it was a bad habit. Somehow, I missed the point that you could tap the brakes without using the clutch. My formal manual transmission training was courtesty of my pal Dave when he sold us our first car, a Mercury Tracer. My lesson consisted of cautiously scooting around the sidestreets and alleys near his house, because I was afraid to go higher than third gear. His lovely wife Amy was kind enough to follow us back to our place in their car, so Dave could coach me through any stalling on the major roads between his place and our apartment.

My Irish driving instructor told me that he calls riding the clutch "stall-a-phobia." I told him he was right - I'd learned to drive in a city where if you stalled the car, you had about 5 seconds to make it right before there were three cars piled up behind you, baying for your blood. I stalled the car on my first Dave-free outing, on the only area within 100 miles of our place that had any sort of grade to it. It was sort of like the nightmare of running down an ever-lengthening hallway. Every time I tried to restart the car, I rolled back a bit more.

I've been working on the clutch issue for the last few weeks. At the end of my last practise test yesterday, I asked the instructor what he thought my chances were. "If you concentrate, and you keep off the clutch, I think your chances for passing are very good. The biggest thing you have going for you is your age. It's the 17 and 18 year-old kids that they really want to crack down on and give a tough test to. At the end of the day, all you can hope for is a fair test and to do your best."

On second thought, forget the last minute practising. I think the best thing I can do now is have a bath and good night's sleep and then a nice run tomorrow morning before setting out for the testing centre. Possible the best thing I can do right now is to relax and get back a little of my 16-year old self.


At 26 September 2007 at 05:23, Anonymous Primal Sneeze said...

Bhuel, go n-eirí leat ar maidin.

Fingers and toes crossed for ya!

At 26 September 2007 at 08:38, Blogger wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

I loved this post. Hope all went well for you. I remember taking my test in England after months of lessons. The fact I'd been driving in the States for 16 years meant nothing. My instructor took me through the village beforehand, pointing out some things to look out for, including a two-way road that became one-way at one point. During my test we drove down the road. Remembering my instructor's warnings, I carefully moved over to the right. Except it was still two-way. Well, I failed on that attempt. I took it again a few weeks later and despite not doing the best reverse parking, I passed. What a relief!

At 26 September 2007 at 08:47, Blogger wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

And I wrote a comment on your previous post.

At 26 September 2007 at 09:04, Blogger John of Dublin said...

Wow, don't we both lead exciting lives! Good luck!

At 26 September 2007 at 13:45, Anonymous Conortje said...

I hope it all went ok. I was nervous just reading this. I'm also a clutch abuser - very difficult to unlearn.

At 26 September 2007 at 17:57, Blogger Kaycie said...

I hope your test goes well. Sending you good thoughts.

At 26 September 2007 at 18:34, Blogger Amy said...

Ohio was much fussier than Wisconsin. And my brother got his license in Salt Lake City, where they had him drive around the block and that was it. I hope your test goes well and that they aren't overly critical because you happened to be born in America.

At 26 September 2007 at 18:35, Blogger -Ann said...

PS - Go raibh maith agat!

WUASTC - Thanks. What really sort of riles me are the Eastern European EU citizens who get to swap their licenses for Irish licenses. The standards over there are a bit different. When we rented a car in Slovenia, the rental guy said "Your insurance deductible is 250 euro. That means if you get drunk and crash car, you only pay 250 euro." As though this were a common occurence. (And given that their highway rest stops have bars, I'd say it could be.) And thanks for letting me know to check my past post. :)

John - Thanks. Our lives certainly are exciting.

Conortje - Thanks. It's nearly impossible to undo, especially when you're not really sure how to do it properly.

Kaycie - Thanks.

At 26 September 2007 at 18:36, Blogger -Ann said...

Amy - We must have been pressing the "Publish Your Comment" button nearly simultaneously. In Illinois, all Peter had to do was drive around the block (4 right hand turns) and then pull into a parking space. Since he was in his 20s, they took it easy on him, I guess. I know it was difficult for kids to pass the test and it involved parallel parking for them.

At 26 September 2007 at 20:42, Blogger Col said...

Huh. I took driver's education from the high school (during the summer) and had to pass the written and driving tests to get a learner's permit. Getting my license was just a rubber-stamp kind of thing once I turned 16. I remember being nervous about the driving test, but I passed. (We didn't have to parallel park or do 3-point turns for the test. And yes, the car was an automatic!)

Well, if you can't drive on hills, at least you can run up them! Your test sounds hideous. It's so bizarre that you can fail and then drive yourself home. I would have poured myself a nice big jigger of Irish whiskey and gone to bed afterwards. My sympathies-- better luck next time!

At 26 September 2007 at 21:00, Blogger Col said...

Addendum to my comment: Do you remember the time I made you parallel park, right after you got your car? I wouldn't let you wimp out and look for spot you could pull into front-wards. So, my prescription: from now on, you must park on hills, and only on hills. On the upward slope, that is. ;-)

I still don't envy you. I've never learned to drive a manual. Never had a reason or opportunity.

At 27 September 2007 at 06:08, Blogger -Ann said...

Col - I remember when you told me about Michigan's test system (when we worked in that lovely corner office, in fact) and I thought it was a bit bizarre. You're right, though, the Irish system is a bit weird. My first provisional license expired on the 15th of this month (it was good for 2 years) and that required me to have a licensed driver in the car (although that law is probably the most disregarded one in the whole country). The second lets you drive alone, but then from the third and up, you have to have a licensed driver in the car.

Funny, I do remember when you made me parallel park. I thought you were so mean, but now I see it was just tough love. :)


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