I wrote this in October 2012 for an English class at LMU. This essay is about learning how to drive a manual car… and how my father taught me.
The Most Elaborate of all Learning Processes
There are those things that come easy; there are those things that take months, even years, to master; and then there are those things that seem unattainable to master. Yet somehow, we come to master them. For me, it was the latter in the elaborate learning process of manual cars. I struggled and struggled, but somehow, came through. Eventually, albeit. My father taught me how to drive a manual car, also known as a stick-shift, and I will never forget those months learning this intricate process.
I must first explain how to drive a manual car to those who learned quite easily on an automatic before I delve into the dynamics of my personal learning process. Driving a manual car requires precision. The driver must lift up on the clutch with his or her left foot while pressing down on the gas pedal. Sounds easy, right? Wrong. It is not. This clutch and gas momentum requires enough precision that if done incorrectly, the driver will stall. And trust me; it takes more than one lesson to really get this right. After the driver has mastered the complex momentum of letting up on the clutch and pressing down on the gas, the gears must be tackled. There are six gears: one through five, and reverse. One is used when starting the car, while five is used in high speeds; the gears in between are used to get up to the high speeds. The driver cannot go from one to five; the driver must go up to five through each gear. That is, unless the driver is ignorant of the gears.
The gears seem easy, right? Wrong again. The gears require a certain amount of flow. The driver must be able to feel where the gears are in order to go up to the correct gear. It is entirely possible to accidentally go from first gear to fourth gear if the placement is incorrect. I have done this before. It is not a good situation. For me, I freaked out the first time it happened, wincing at the obnoxious, screaming noises the car made. The noises are so terrifying that I went into panic mode, turning off the car and waiting for what seemed like hours to try again.
Once the driver knows, and masters, all of these mechanics of driving a manual car, he or she is ready to drive without extra assistance. But let me reiterate: this knowledge does not come without frustration, impatience, and fear.
My father started teaching me how to drive a manual car at age fifteen. I had just bought my learner’s permit from the incredibly slow Department of Licensing (DOL) and was eager to learn how to drive. That did not last long. Once I realized how difficult driving a manual could be my interest in driving subsided. I began to grow frustrated with the process. I was not picking it up fast enough. What was wrong with me?
I have always been one of those people who cannot pick things up quickly. I could just be a slow learner; I could just not be good at things. Learning how to ride a bike was a struggle, as was passing the test that everyone passes for soccer referee certification. Somehow, I could not do these menial tasks on the first or second try. Driving a car was no different. So I became quite frustrated.
My frustration was obvious. My father can vouch for that:
At first you were not happy having to learn two new things at once: driving and that stick shift. Also, you got very agitated whenever you stalled the car, which of course happened a lot. So I had to remind you that it was just a learning experience and that you would master the art of driving with a stick very soon.
I don’t think you believed me at the time, but since I know you can drive a car with a stick without stalling, and so I was right in the end. I also told you the boys would be impressed and was I right about that? (De Jong).
Of course he was right; it was just a learning process that I would not master instantly. But why couldn’t I have been that one person to understand it instantly? Why couldn’t I have been the exception, rather than the rule?
According to my father’s memory, my biggest obstacles were the ones most people struggle with: “The biggest obstacle was starting in first gear and stopping and then starting on a hill” (De Jong). Let me explain how difficult this is. Picture a car, parked on a hill. In an automatic, the car will roll back only slightly when starting. This is a little intimidating for new drivers, just the mere thought of hitting someone behind. But in a manual, this is a million times more dramatic. To start on a hill, the driver must use the clutch momentum, which pushes the car further back. And that is horrifying. I worried about hitting another car; I worried about rolling down the hill and not being able to go forward. Luckily, that never happened. But it could have. My frustration turned into fear.
Driving a manual car also make anyone impatient. My father dealt with my initial incompetence well. He was never harsh or rude or angry. He knew I could do it. “I knew you needed lots of practice before you became comfortable with driving in traffic and learning how to use a stick shift. Doubly hard! The most important [thing] was to make sure that you were ready to drive by yourself and by the time you were [sixteen]. I was pretty confident of your driving skills” (De Jong). I, on the other hand, was angry that I could not master this. I remember feeling so hopeless and worried that I would not have the competency to pass the driving test. My father helped me understand that all I needed was practice. I needed to fail first. I needed to stall in my elementary school’s parking lot before I could take the car to the street and immerse myself with real drivers. Now I know that. However, when I was learning how to drive a manual, this was not clear-cut. I thought I would be a failure forever.
Fear took over, leading me to believe that my driving skills, or lack thereof, would never be good enough for the road. I began to compose these intricate and negative scenarios in my mind: stalling in traffic, hitting another car because I could not get the brake/clutch momentum just right, not being able to start the car from park. This fear consumed my mind leading up to the driver’s test day. Anxiety clouded my vision. But according to my father, all I needed was confidence to pass the test. Easier said than done! Honestly, I worried that I would never be able to drive a car.
But I did learn. I eventually became more and more comfortable behind the wheel of a manual car. The first time I drove on the freeway with my father I froze, wondering how anyone ever manages to merge; but I became more confident shifting gears because I was forced to. The freeway does not offer much room for error. My confidence level skyrocketed once I tackled the dreaded freeway. And that changed everything. I learned how to drive a manual car!
My father is the sole reason that I can drive a car today. He did not give up on me when I wanted to give up on myself. He would force me to practice driving, much to my dismay. But his forced driving sessions instilled a sense of diligence and competence in me.
Besides just learning how to drive with my father, I got to bond with him a way that I never recognized back then. I actually thought he was trying to torture me by keeping his manual car for me to learn on. I argued, unsuccessfully, for him to get an automatic. But honestly? Now I am glad he did not listen to me. Driving an automatic is much easier, but we may not have bonded if I had picked it up immediately.
Our bonding began with frustration and fear, and ended with happiness and confidence. We shared my anguish and tears and cautious driving. My father agrees that it was a bonding experience: “Yes it was fun to go to Soos Creek [elementary school] and spend all that time with you. I knew that in a blink of an eye you would be [twenty-one] so I enjoyed your company while I could” (De Jong). Learning how to drive a manual car is also such an interesting experience, as not all teenagers will have the opportunity. I was lucky enough to have a thoughtful and patient father who understood my frustrations, but could also bond with me. That is certainly something I would not trade for the world.
It was my father who ultimately made the difference in making this experience worthwhile. I will not say that this learning process did not come without yelling, mostly on my part, but it did serve to show me that I can do things, and I should not give up. For that, I will be forever grateful to my father.
Learning how to drive a manual car took me almost a year to learn, and several years to master. I feel confident driving a manual now, even though I plan on buying an automatic after college. But having the ability to drive a manual is a skill I will never forget or devalue. And I have my father to thank for that.