Utter Failure: Learning to Drive a Stick Shift

There’s a chasm of difference between doing what you knew you could and doing what you thought you couldn’t.

When I was 14, my dad bought a black sedan we called Shadow. At the dealer, he selected one particular attribute because, “You’re about to start driving”: Shadow was a manual transmission. I would learn to drive on mom’s automatic. The whole purpose of Shadow was to be dad’s car.

Four years later on the street in front of our home, dad found himself jerking back and forth in Shadow’s passenger’s seat while I eeked shaking, sputtering false starts out of the transmission. Again, he explained, “Push in the clutch, and move into first gear. Then, gaaaah! — ” and the car lunged. Then, died. Again. My dad is a patient sort of man, and it took him four little training sessions to give up on me.

My mom’s turn began in a parking lot where Wal-Mart used to be. I clicked into the driver’s seat. Inept, but knowledgeable, I depressed the pedal and turned the key, then released. Shadow leapt, my mom’s head bobbled front to back, and the familiar red light shone on the dashboard, marking defeat. “Good try,” she said. “Now, remember to put it in neutral before you turn it on–HOLD THE BRAKE!” We sunk backward in panic for three long seconds as I pumped gas into the engine, mistaking one pedal for another while Shadow growled his agitation. At 8:34, mom decided to take a walk while I practiced getting into first gear.

From my bedroom desk that night, I could hear my parents agreeing in the other room. On the wall between them and me, ribbons for dramatic speech, plaques for charcoal and pencil and painting, and a great, big valedictorian trophy cast shadows. I was 18, and everything I had ever tried had come pretty easy, if I put a little time in (sometimes a very little time). Behind every ribbon was a time when I couldn’t lose – always a matter of “good” or “better.” It was a wall full of “A+”s that might otherwise have been “A”s. Below, parallel parked on the street, Shadow sat. My first outright, no question “F”. For my untrained hands, Shadow was as mobile as a fat man on a barstool. Pitted against a manual transmission, I wasn’t between “good” and “better,” I was solidly in the failing camp. And, strangely enough, no one but me would really know or care if I failed.

I climbed into Shadow the next morning. I turned the key, and he yanked forward for just a moment, then quit and the red fail light flashed.

“10:44,” I said. “The last time I ever stalled Shadow was at 10:44.” I flipped the key left, breathed in the cool winter air, and twisted the key right. I heard the engine whir. Then, I tried to ease off the clutch as I shifted into first. Shadow flatly died.

“10:44 and thirty seconds,” I said aloud. “The last time I ever stalled Shadow was at 10:44 and 30 seconds.” Once again, I shifted the key back, took a long breath, and started the engine. That morning, I crept some 5 feet forward over 30 minutes. Conveniently, he was still basically parked where he had been at 10:43.

Afraid of whiplash, no one else would get in the car with me. Yet, every day for two weeks, I spent thirty minutes stalling and sputtering and jolting and irking. And, slowly, I watched the minutes between stalls lengthen. I could get him moving in first gear within nine days. Second gear proved another full-week challenge, but after that, third and fourth and fifth came easy. Of course, reverse was a freebie.

Finally, at the dinner table one night, I replied to some question or other, “I deposited my check at the bank today.”

“How did you do that?” mom wondered. Mom and dad had both driven their cars to work, and no one was around to give me a ride.

“I drove Shadow,” all nonchalant.

“To the bank?”

“Yep. He ran just fine.”

Three years later, the night before graduating, my friends and I gathered at our little rented house to preen. One friend, straightening her hair, cooed, “Think about what this represents, this diploma. Four years of work, tons and tons of effort. I’m so proud of it! This diploma is the greatest accomplishment of my life.” They nodded.

“I don’t know,” I dissented. “I worked hard for my B.A., and I’m really excited to have earned it. But, for me, I don’t think anything I’ve done took as much as learning to drive a stick shift.” Whatever the outcome, there’s a chasm of difference between doing what you knew you could and doing what you thought you couldn’t.