When I was sixteen the local Driver’s Ed course was offered on a muggy, unbearably humid week in the dead of summer. The classroom was on the top floor of an old, downtown building, the kind housing a mixed bag of dentists, lawyers, and old travel agencies with faded posters in the windows, brown beaches and blue oceans now all a uniform dull gray, the dented and scratched selling point under the bold promise “You’ll never want to come home again!”
The classroom had no air conditioning — just a few windows propped open with books and rulers, pleading with ol’ Ma Nature for some heavenly breeze to keep us awake and help us get through the day. We panted and dripped and the room reeked like a pack of chalk crumbled like saltines into a big soup bowl of sweat.
It was a strange class, because nobody knew each other and we were all going separate ways after the week was up. The in-car lessons following the in-classroom ones were to be done one-on-one, with the instructor picking us up from our house and taking us to parking lots and quiet sideroads to master The Art of the Wheel.
I don’t know about you, but for me that week of Driver’s Ed classes was torture. Learning how to drive in a classroom is like learning to ride a bike in a swimming pool. It just makes no sense. Overheads were thrown up on screen and the instructor would spend half an hour drawing triangles to show us our blind spots. We would discuss the history and importance of seatbelts and watch lengthy videos of a camera pointed out the windshield of a moving car with the narrator saying things like “I see an intersection on my left. I notice there are no cars coming. I proceed through the intersection.”
It’s fair to say most of Driver’s Ed class is pretty foggy to me. My notes are long gone and there’s no way I could draw you a picture of my blind spot. But there is one thing that I do remember from those classes. One bit of one lecture on one afternoon that stuck in my head. It was when the instructor said that every driver goes through four steps on their way to learning how to drive. Tapping his chalk on the blackboard to get our attention he continued, “It’s just a matter of knowing what step you’re in.”
- Step 1: You don’t know you don’t know. You’ve never tried to drive a car before so you have no idea that you suck at it. All you know is that there are cars everywhere and people driving them. So what’s so hard about that?
- Step 2: You know you don’t know. Surprise! You can’t drive. You realize it the first time you make a painfully slow and wide turn into the wrong lane. It hits home when you tire-punch the curb and accidentally run a red light, but slow down for a green one you think should be changing. You can’t park, can’t parallel park, can’t park on a hill, and forget to signal. It’s depressing, but at least now you know you don’t know. You made it to Step 2, whether you wanted to or not.
- Step 3: You know you know. After a while it finally comes — the blissful day when you realize for the first time you can drive! Step 3 usually arrives after scaring a few pedestrians, enduring a few frustrating coaching sessions with your parents, and listening to a few dozen “Uh-oh, you’re on the road?” jokes. But you finally made it. And now you’re higher than a kite, sitting pretty on Cloud 10. Congratulations!
- Step 4: You don’t know you know. Eventually, it becomes old hat. You know you’re on Step 4 the first time you arrive at work instead of the grocery store on Saturday morning or land in your driveway with a sudden panic that you can’t remember the last fifteen minutes of your commute. “How did I get here,” you ask yourself, before eventually realizing that you must’ve just driven home in a waking dream, signaling subconsciously and turning effortlessly, your brain clicking over to autopilot without letting you know. When this happens you’re on Step 4. You don’t even know you know anymore.
But this isn’t about Step 4. It’s about Step 3. It’s about the great joy of realizing you’ve learned something new, something massively new, and can feel proud that your effort, practice, and determination have finally paid off. That first day you first realize you can drive is a wicked high.
And isn’t it a great sense of freedom when the road hockey rinks and street chalkboards of your childhood transform into highways to drive-ins and out-of-town parties? The world seems to suddenly shrink and open up. It’s cool thinking how many cities and places connect to the street you live on. That’s when you look up to the sky, smile and nod slowly, and recall the faded posters of the old travel agency downtown.
“You’ll never want to come home again!”