In my sophomore year in high school I was fifteen, old enough to start driver's education classes. At the beginning of the semester we studied the rules of the road via the Department of Motor Vehicles information booklets. Next, we were horrified by the gore and bad acting of the California Highway Patrol series of driving instruction films, Red Asphalt and The Last Prom. Then for weeks, we sat in the simulator, a small trailer with rows of "driver's seats" facing a film screen. A machine allowed our teacher to track our success and failure as we "drove" down the simulated streets on screen. Finally, we were then able to obtain our learner's permit and get behind the wheel of the driver's ed car.
Our teacher, Mr. Riordan who doubled as a Spanish teacher, sat on the passenger side of the car, equipped with another brake pedal. My driving training was scheduled for the early morning hours before school. During that time, Señor Riordan would direct me and two other students on a course of his own choosing. Some mornings we drove along the shore down West Cliff Drive as the sun came up. The girls in the car were challenged to keep their eyes on the road while surfers changed into wetsuits next to their Volkswagons.
Other mornings, Señor Riordan would lead us down windy back roads to a small diner where he would go in to get a cup of coffee and read the paper, leaving us behind in the parking lot. Even now, while driving exceptionally sharp turns, I hear his monotone voice in my head, "Break in, accelerate out. Break in to the turn, accelerate out."
My final task was to master the manual transmission with my mom as my teacher. I was eager to show her all I had learned. On the day I started, my hands looked out of place to me in the ten and two position grasping the steering wheel of our blue 1979 Toyota Celica liftback. After fighting the stick shift out of neutral and into first gear, I eased the clutch out as I stepped on the gas, jerking the car to an abrupt stop, the Toyota's engine dying in the process. I restarted the car and repeated this move as we made our way down our street three feet at a time.
I was near tears as I finally had success moving forward. I stepped on the gas, the engine straining in first, and then promptly killed the car again as I tried to shift into second. And then I did it again. And again. Finally the transmission screeched as I somehow managed to change gears. Picking up speed I veered wildly, jumped the curb, plowing down three garbage cans in my neighbor's yard before coming to a screeching stop against a mailbox post.
I sat behind the wheel and wailed to my mom that I would never be able to drive this, or any car. "I'm never driving again and I'm obviously moving to a convent and becoming a nun," I cried and wiped my nose on my sleeve as I explained that I was pretty sure that nuns didn't have to drive since they just got driven around in nun vans or something and that was my only logical life choice unless I planned to kill somebody and hadn't she seen Red Asphalt? My mom quietly got out of the car and changed seats with me.
I would not have believed then that my next three cars would be stick shifts. My current car is an automatic but some days I still find my foot reaching for the clutch.