Saturday, September 26 2020

looking back on learning to drive

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Names of people, but not places, have been changed to protect the innocent.

Back in high school, I wrote a paper for my sophomore English class about my harrowing foray into driver's education. My autobiographical account spun a roaringly funny, proverbial tale of how I had to swallow my pride after ignorantly turning into oncoming traffic, and how I had to humble myself before learning the rules of the road from my eccentric, street smart driving instructor. It was one of the funniest papers I've ever written, and my English teacher liked it so much, she asked me to submit it to the school newspaper.

But I wasn't completely honest when writing that paper. At the time, I wrote off my fudging of the truth as "creative license", but it's clear to me now that I wrote that paper to cover up something that was, in a very real way, traumatic and embarrassing. In this deal with the devil, I would endorse the light-hearted and self-deprecating version of the story, and in return, I would earn the right to forget about what really happen.

For starters, I was never confident in my ability to drive. And why would I be? I was a very quiet and cerebral kid, tortured with guilt and insecurity. Social interactions made me nervous. I had a poor sense of direction. My cloistered, Christian upbringing extended about as far as my church and my small private Christian school, and even within those, my social circles were small. On top of everything, I just wasn't handy. I had neither knack nor interest in hands-on, common sense stuff like fishing, wood working, fixing things around the house, or tinkering in the garage. When it came time to learn how to drive, the cornerstone skill of the bold and the brave man's man, I was planning for failure.

Even just the thought of having to sit in a classroom with "public school kids" gave me anxiety. The first day of class, after wandering across the street from my neighborhood to that cramped, chilly strip mall building, I was on edge. What if they noticed how quiet I was, and then I said something stupid? What if I became a running joke around public school as the quiet and stupid kid from summer driver's ed?

Our teacher barged into the classroom. His clothes were wrinkled. His face had more scruff on it than his bald head. His voice was painfully hoarse and craggly. He rambled into the room, like a stumbly drunk pirate in modern day street clothes. As his slow, saggy eyes scanned the room, his coffee stained teeth forming a bleak smile, we burned the first twenty minutes of class with a meandering introduction.

"I had a lot of your brothers and sisters in class," he droned. "Becca, I remember your sister, Jamie. There's little sister Lisa. Oh, and I taught your brother when this class was still part of Conant."

He made his way all around the room, name dropping brothers, sisters, cousins, friends and former teachers, and it only made me feel more out of place. With my hands folded out in front of me, I held my head perfectly still, staring at a blank spot on the wall behind him. It was my mission to remain completely unnoticed.

Over the next few weeks, I grew to like Mr. Manchione. He was vulgar, lewd, and unprofessional, but he was also funny and candid. The more he lectured, the more he revealed a real, authentic passion for teaching kids how to drive. Going beyond the textbook basics, he'd tell us colorful stories of fateful mistakes he'd witnessed on the road. Like a mystical, street-smart sage, he illuminated the hidden truths of surviving on the road, along the way leaving pearls of wisdom like "just make sure the spot is yours for the taking", and "keep your eyes moving".

The class stirred my curiosity. Though I was still petrified at the thought of having to one day drive with this man, I was enraptured by the theory of driver's ed. I even felt emboldened enough to raise my hand, answer questions, and crack the occasional well-timed joke. He still thought of me as the quiet kid, but at least I was the quiet kid that studied hard and usually knew the answer.

On our last day of class, we took a written final exam. Mr. Manchione passed around the answer key, as to make sure everyone passed. We spent the rest of the time watching (and heckling) old, outdated driver's education videos he had collected over the years.

The following week, I awoke early for my first behind the wheel session. I nervously paced around our kitchen. Sitting. Standing. Reviewing the notes I had taken from class, trying to visualize driving a car with Mr. Manchione.

The doorbell rang. He and my mother chatted on the porch while I summoned the nerve to make my way around the corner and follow him out to his cherry red jeep.

"I'll make sure he comes back in one piece," he joked. The car doors snapped shut. I did my best to suppress my nerves and track with his introductory explanation. He was funny, charming, and easy going, just as he was in lecture, but for some reason in a one-on-one situation it just made me even more nervous.

"Let's get going," he said, gesturing forward. Hesitantly, I leaned on the gas and the car began to creep forward. I followed the gentle contour of my side street all the way to the entrance to our neighborhood.

"How about we take a left out onto Plum Grove Road," he said gesturing, then turning his head back down into his clipboard on his lap. I hesitated. The entrance two our neighborhood had two lanes, divided by a little patch of land - one lane for going out, and one lane for coming in. I chose the wrong lane.

Mr. Manchione's head shot up. His eyes bulged cartoonishly. "WOAAAAAAHHHHHH," he screamed. "GET OUT OF HERE GET OUT OF HERE."

I froze, my knuckles white from gripping the wheel.

"WE'RE IN ONCOMING TRAFFIC WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" he yelled. My voice cracked. "Should I..."


I flipped the car out and drove back into the neighborhood through the other lane.

"Just... JUST stop," he said curtly. Taking him literally, I stepped on the break, halting the car in the middle of the empty neighborhood intersection.

"NOT HERE," he yelled hoarsly. "YOU'RE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE INTERSECTION - PULL OVER THERE?" I crept the car forward and parked on the same side street. Mr. Manchione folded his head into his lap, rubbing his eyes. I gripped the wheel tighter, so we wouldn't see my hands were shaking.

"You realize you could have killed us?" he asked, looking up at me. "This is... OK wow," he said, reeling. "You're not ready for the real road, yet. I think for you, we'll just have to drive around your neighborhood for a while."

I'd spend the rest of my first behind the wheel session just coasting around the empty streets in my neighborhood at about twenty miles per hour. I held back tears, while staring blankly ahead at the road while Mr. Manchione belabored his point.

"What do you want to do with your life?" He asked. Grateful he was changing the subject, I leaned into the topic.

"I think I want to be a doctor," I said.

"Yeah?" he replied in a hostile tone. "What kind of doctor do you want to be?"

"I...," I stammered. "I think I'm interested in... you know... the brain, and the nervous system." His lips curled into a wicked smile. Mr. Manchione cackled.

"A brain surgeon," he said mockingly. "You know what? You seem pretty smart. I think you'll actually become a brain surgeon, Mr. Recker. You're going to have to hire someone to drive you around your own neighborhood, though. You will be the smartest, richest brain surgeon in the country, but you're not even going to be able to drive a car."

As Mr. Manchione droned on, his voice began to sound hollow and distant, like it was coming through the walls of a fish tank. It was like my brain was selectively canceling out the sound of his voice, sparing me from further embarrassment. I only watched his hands, pointing me which direction to drive in my tranquil suburban neighborhood.

"Stop here," he said. "We need to pick up the next student." I stared at the back of Mr. Manchione's head as he traversed the front yard of another house on my block. A beautiful girl from our class, tall with long blond hair and glimmering eyes, followed him back to our car and climbed into the back seat. The car was suddenly filled with the smell of perfume.

"Miss Lawrence, this is Mr. Recker," said Mr. Manchione boisterously. "Mr. Recker is going to be a brain surgeon, but he's going to need to make enough money to hire his own driver."

The girl smiled uncomfortably, and we all fastened our seat belts.

"Mr. Recker, please don't kill Miss Lawrence," he said, continuing to lampoon me.

After a few more minutes of driving, I switched seats with the girl, and took my place in the back seat. We picked up another student before Mr. Manchione guided the girl to my house. I hurriedly climbed out of the car.

"Uh, Mr. Recker," said Mr. Manchione abruptly. "I was wondering if I could have a word with your mother." The other students in the car smiled knowingly.

My Mom greeted me in the driveway. "How was it?" she asked.

"Good," I squeaked. "Uh, he wanted to talk to you." Mr. Manchione, following behind me greeted my mother warmly. I stood awkwardly in the middle of our empty garage while he regaled her with a drawn out, exaggerated tale of how I nearly killed us in oncoming traffic, only to tempt death again by stopping in the middle of the intersection while trying to get out.

"He's a smart kid," he said. "Told me he wants to be a brain surgeon. But he's still gotta learn how to drive, he's got a long way to go."

I didn't catch all of the conversation. Out of embarrassment, my brain reverted to fish tank mode again. But being a natural showman wanting to amuse my mom, Mr. Manchione omitted all the details in the story that would have helped my case.

For starters, saying I drove into oncoming traffic was generous. Here is a picture of the intersection where it happened. The green arrow was the indented path, and the red arrow was my path.

drivers ed diagram

When I pulled up to that little decorative hut beside the sign, Mr. Manchione began to scream I don't want to die. At his frantic direction, I turned right onto the road and immediately back through the other side, stopping in the big empty intersection where both arrows pass through in the image. This is where, as Mr. Manchione claimed, I almost killed us a second time.

Notice that in this screenshot, there isn't a car in sight. That's because this intersection was only the entrance to my subdivision. The speed limit was 25 mph. We probably saw one car drive through every five minutes or so. I actually used to play street hockey in the middle of the street only a little further up toward my house. We were not in danger.

He also failed to mention that the third student we picked up committed the exact same error. From the back seat, I watched the dopey athletic guy from our class pull up to the entrance and turn into the wrong lane the same way I had. But Mr. Manchione spared him of all the hysterics I had witnessed earlier that morning. He didn't scream or claim that we were going to die. He just turned in his seat and smiled at me. "Feel a little better now, Alex? He just did the same thing." We continued out onto the road where I had turned around. "But he doesn't live here, so he has an excuse."

"Mrs. Recker," said Mr. Manchione, winding down his big ranting speech in the middle of our driveway. "Your son might be the worst driver I've ever had. But we'll work on him - we'll get him there." I nodded meekly and walked back into the house.

I only had two more driving sessions with Mr. Manchione that summer. None of them were as bad as the first, but I dreaded every minute in that cherry red jeep. Mr. Manchione just took so much pleasure in making me uncomfortable. He delighted in embarrassing me in front of girls, never forgetting to introduce me as the brain surgeon who can't drive. He loved playing loud rap music in the car and interrogating me with penetrating questions about my religion and my nonexistent dating life. One session, without warning, he guided me onto the interstate highway inbound to downtown Chicago so we could pick up lunch at his favorite hot dog place on the west side. Hurdling down the highway at 80 miles an hour, Mr. Manchione bafoonishly guided me through narrow gaps in speeding cars and barreling semi trucks. "You like driving in the city?" he cackled. "This is the real shit, Mr. Recker - trial by fire!"

I wouldn't say driving with Mr. Manchione's prepared me for the real DMV test. The first time I tried to get my license, I failed the test on the very first turn. The DMV driving test administrator directed me to make a right turn at a red light. I rolled too far into the intersection. "STOP STOP STOP," yelled the DMV examiner. An approaching semi truck laid on the horn.

drivers ed failed

"Turn around," he said after regaining his composure. "The test is over. You definitely didn't pass."

I broke down into tears on the way back to school. My mom mercifully prolonged my embarrassing return to class. She agreed to let me skip lunch too, and took me to taco bell instead.

A few months later, I tried again. I found myself in my mom's car with a new test administrator. I cautiously approached the same intersection. The light was red.

"Make a right here," he said bleakly.

There wasn't a car in sight, but I left my foot firmly planted on the brake. We both just stared forward, letting the stale, deafening silence grow while I stubbornly waited for the light to turn green.

"You can take a right here," he repeated.

In my rear view mirror, I saw a midnight blue porsche convertible come to an abrupt stop. The driver, wearing flashy sunglasses, honked his horn and waived his hands in frustration.

The light turned green. The car crept forward. A few minutes later, I pulled back into the DMV.

"Is that where you failed last time?" the guy asked.

"Yeah," I said, out of breath. "I rolled through the red light on the right turn."

The heavy set man shifted in his seat and slowly turned his head. "Well this time," he snorted. "You just planted your ass there and didn't move, huh? Smart."

"I passed?" I asked. He wearily nodded while climbing out of the car, then wordlessly guided me back to the DMV where I was issued my driver's license.

Learning to drive was painful and embarrassing. While preparing to write this, Marissa and I got into a discussion about our driving experiences, and she shared some of her own horror stories. I've come to appreciate that learning to drive may just be a universally horrible experience, not matter who you are. As much as I'd like to think that a real proverbial lesson precipitated out of one of the worst summers of my life, or that Mr. Manchione had a secret benevolent reason for humiliating me in class, it's taken me almost fifteen years to confront the uncomfortable truth that he was just kind of an asshole and I was just the butt of his joke.

I wish the story of how I learned to drive was as funny and light-hearted as the one I submitted to the school paper. I think I wanted to make light of it just so I could put an end to it and still come out on top. I used humor to cover up something painful, and ultimately excuse someone's needlessly cruel behavior. When it comes time to teach Rodney and Miles to drive, I'll probably borrow some old pearls of wisdom from Mr. Manchione's playbook, but with my own lessons as well. It's OK to make mistakes. No one should expect you to be good at something you've never tried before. And above all, learning to drive sucks, so the least we can do is be decent to the kids that have to do it.