By Sasha Debevec-McKenney
January 21, 2010: The Day I Got my Instructional Permit
So this is my advice to every teenager in Beloit, Wis. who wants their driver’s license. I am not a good driver. I’m still in the same place as you, just a little bit older. I’ve cried in the driver’s seat and punched the wheel because I couldn’t parallel park after trying ten times in a row. I’ve wanted to give up and pull over and get out, but had to just keep driving. I’ve almost caused accidents. Except I’m in a worse spot — I didn’t grow up here, I don’t know where things are and when a tricky turn is coming up. I don’t know when roads split and then all of a sudden I’m in a left-turn-only-lane: I have to actually read the road signs to know stuff like that. If I can get my license, you can get yours. Get your license when you’re young, but when you’re ready. If, like me, you’re not willing to fight for it, then don’t do it. You might not be able to go out to your friends’ houses sometimes because you can’t get a ride, but we all need nights in every so often.
When you go to the DMV to get take your permit test, at least study a little bit. For a couple weeks beforehand, ask your parents to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing while driving — that’s the kind of stuff that will be on the permit test. If you don’t know specific things like how many feet away from a motorcycle you should be, it’s not that important.
You sit at a computer and answer two sets of questions. The first is road signs — you shouldn’t really have to study for this. The hardest part is when they take the words off the signs, and you have to know them by shape and color. The yellow signs are the trickiest to decipher; they kind of just blend together at some point. The second set has 50 questions, most of which are common sense, and some of which take real knowledge of how a car works and what brakesyou should use in the snow. You might have to just take the loss on questions like these and move on; you’ll cross those snowy bridges when you come to them. You’ll pass the test, earn your permit and a couple days later you’ll get the real plastic thing in the mail. Take some time to yourself to enjoy this victory. Hold the card in your hand and imagine how good it’ll feel when it’s a real license.
The next step to getting your license is practicing. Learning how to turn left was the hardest thing for me to do — sometimes it seemed like I never got it right. How much to turn the wheel, how hard to push down on the gas, or break or how light to touch the gas, I barely had it figured out by the day of my test. Luckily, in Beloit, usually there’s nobody coming the other way, so if you slip into the oncoming lane a bit you probably won’t hit anybody, but it’s probably better to practice a lot in parking lots and residential areas just to make sure, at least at first. The first time I could really felt like I successfully turned left, I almost immediately got into an accident because of over confidence.
Somehow, overconfidence became a major problem for me in my three months of permit-dom. It seemed like every time I got on the road feeling like I was a real driver I made the most mistakes. Once, about two weeks before my test, I started the engine, closed my eyes and felt the car rumble and told myself over and over that I was a good driver, that this run would be perfect. The first few miles were good, solid driving, and then, within a span of five minutes, I (1) tried to turn into the left lane and slowed down so much that a car slammed his breaks on behind me and (2) mistook a green light for a protected left and almost got run into by about three cars coming the opposite way and was forced to slam on my own breaks.
But not everything about learning to drive is incredibly stressful. The best part about learning to drive is learning how you drive. When I was just a passenger, I hated when anybody went over the speed limit whatsoever. But as a driver, going over the speed limit was really fun.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010: The Day Before my Driving Test
For some reason, I waited until the weekend before to learn to parallel park. So I spent about six hours total in the two days before the test just driving around and parallel parking wherever I could. My hands ached from twisting the wheel right and left and right again, and I failed so much I felt hopeless. But eventually, I was successful enough times that I convinced myself I could do it. Teenage Beloiters, in no way do I endorse the act of only learning to parallel park two days before your driving test. It is not productive and you won’t properly learn. I don’t really have an excuse for why I waited and neither should you.
The night before my driving test was one of the most awful ones of my entire life. In Wisconsin, you have to schedule your test months in advance; if I didn’t pass, I would have to go back to Windsor, Conn. without a license where my father would never let me drive and my mother only might. On top of that, I would have to tell everybody in my life that I had failed at something — the only option I had was to pass, and with flying colors. I forced myself to write ten minutes of just stream of consciousness, anxious, crazy writing, so that I could quote it in this essay and make everybody else feel good about how nervous they were. I promise you, however nervous you are on the night before your test, un-licensed-teen-Beloiters, I was more nervous. You are under so much less pressure than me.
Some choice excerpts of my crazy include: “I feel like I should just have a list somewhere of all the things I should chant to myself during the driving test. I have a math test on Friday, I think I’ll probably fail that, I can’t fail everything this week or else what’s the point? And every single person I see, I will have to tell them that I failed, and I’ll have to make a joke out of it like it doesn’t completely suck and that will suck so much,” and “Confidence. Deep breaths. Check mirrors. Signal. Back slowly. Don’t freak out. Don’t cry. Don’t cry!”
Wednesday, April 21, 2010: The Day of my Skills/License Test
The day of my test didn’t go as planned. In my mind, it would have gone like this: I wake up at 8 a.m., a little tired (but motivated), and I would drive alone, illegally but confidently, to that old Beloit Mall parking lot where I would drive the best circles I’d ever driven, before parallel parking perfectly near the library, then picking up coffee at the campus coffee shop Java Joint and getting to my math class for review at 10 a.m. Instead, I slept through my alarm until around 9 a.m., but, refusing to give up on my dream, ran out the door and made it to the Beloit Mall about twenty minutes later. I advise that every single one of you go back to the first place you drove on the day of your test, just like I did, except with a licensed driver so that it’s not illegal. When you get there, pull over and have a personal moment. Tell your licensed driver to be quiet, maybe even stand outside the car while you have a silent moment to reflect upon your personal growth and psych yourself up by comparing the first time you drove to the skill level you have now reached. After a couple minutes of deep breaths, invite your licensed driver back into the car, and drive off, knowing you are ready to pass your driving test.
I got my biggest lesson in driving that morning, four hours before my test, when I was practicing my parallel parking and scraped against a car. I had no idea what to do other than hyperventilate. Everything I had learned prepared me to not make mistakes — not with what to do when I made one. So I decided I would park somewhere else nearby, freak out there, call my boyfriend, Sam Offutt ’12, and ask him what to do. I had ten minutes to do this and get to class on time. It took me about ten minutes just to calm down enough to have a conversation, and we decided that I would go to class even though I was late and write a note to put on the car afterwards. Turns out that this was the wrong thing to do: always leave the note as soon as you do whatever you did to the other car. I learned this the hard way when on my way to class I saw a police car and security guard inspecting the left taillight of what I would learn was a gold Malibu, and this is where I made an even worse mistake, one that made me doubt myself as a driver and a human being: I went to class anyway. I’ll always regret it because, as it turns out, the police were understanding. They called Sam and had him come down to the scene of the crime, and he told them that I had done it and would be back in twenty minutes when my class got out. Meanwhile, I was so distraught about my actions and morals that I couldn’t pay attention for the math test review.
I can’t quite remember how everything went down. I walked to the car and mostly just cried some more, said sorry, Sam talked to the police and to the woman whose car I hit, and before she left, she handed me a tissue and gave me a hug. The police officer told me never to drive without a license again and wished me good luck on my test. The important thing for you to learn from my experience is to not give up on driving even when it seems impossible, like you’ll never be able to parallel park again. On my actual driving test, I parallel parked absolutely perfectly, my DMV examiner had no idea the $1300 worth of turmoil I had caused mere hours before.
In Beloit, everybody who helped me get my driver’s license has been so understanding and truly kind: the police, the woman whose car I hit, all my friends with licenses that drove with me and told me what I was doing wrong and tried not to wince that much, and most importantly: Larry. Larry, my DMV examiner who clearly told me every tricky thing about the driving test a minute before he asked me to start the car. I ended up only getting four points off on the test. If I can hit a car four hours before my test, have a mental breakdown and go on to get my driving license all in the same day, then surely you can do better. I believe in you. Your parents believe in you. Larry believes in you.