Learning to drive — and getting it right, finally

Sunday, December 28, 2008 | 9:39 p.m. CST
Stephanie Smith, 22, passed her driving test on Nov. 21. She took driving lessons in Columbia before taking the test.

COLUMBIA — For the past three months, I’ve been the proud operator of a beige car that pulls up in front of a large white house. Sure, it’s not my house — it’s the management office at the entrance of Tara Apartments, where I live. But that’s OK — it’s not my car, either. It’s more of a rental. With the passenger side armed with a second brake and the back bumper a collage of warning stickers, the car proclaims who I am: a student driver.

As a native of New York City — Queens, specifically — driving had never been my thing, and it never had to be. The 6 and 7 trains took me wherever I needed to go. I knew every downtown stop until St. Mark's Place, the point at which transferring to the N train would save time on a trip to Midtown and where transfers were free. I could confidently give a puzzled tourist directions, but driving, that was a different story. Until this year, I couldn’t have confidently pointed out the accelerator.

After deciding to go to MU for graduate school and realizing the subways wouldn’t follow, I picked up a phone book, looked for the company with the largest color ad and booked my lessons. Looking back, it’s no surprise I failed my first test.

My lessons with Apple Driving School began in early June. By the end of July, I had taken about two months of training, including watching six hours of defensive driving videos (made when wood-paneled Fords were considered hot rides) and spending hours behind the wheel. Needless to say, I was bummed when I didn’t pass my road test.

Having chosen to block most of it out of my mind, I don’t remember much except that it took place right after I had missed my final lesson because my instructor didn't show up and that it lasted all of five minutes. A missed right turn, coupled with testing anxiety and a less-than-friendly examiner, didn’t help. After a near-collision while parallel parking, I was told to pull over, immediately. I think my score was something in the 40s.

I found myself asking the question that nags every unlicensed woman at one point or another: Who knew rollin’ with the homies would be so hard?  If Cher in the movie "Clueless" had to drive off the road, swerve so she didn't chip a nail and answer her bejeweled telephone all at the same to make failing a road test believable, then how come, with hands at 10 and two and my Converse sneaker ever so lightly touching the gas, could I not pass?

Obviously, I still had a lot to learn.

And so, during my first week in Missouri, I set out to find a driving instructor. Paul Abney, who I always called by his first name, turned out to be him.

When I first met Paul, he was mowing the lawn out back of his house, where his business, A+ Driving School, is located. Gray-haired with large-lens glasses, a baseball cap and a firm handshake, Paul decided to take me on as a student. Lessons began in mid-September, and I noticed a difference right away.

On our first lesson, Paul told me to pull into a parking lot and introduced me to the car, a Mazda Protege. He pointed out everything from the back window defroster down to the parking brake, something I hadn't known about in New York. I wondered how I had gone through months of lessons without knowing that swatting down the right blinker turned on the windshield wipers. It was at that point I realized why New Yorkers were infamous for crazy driving and was glad it had never rained during a lesson there.

Learning to drive in Missouri was like starting all over again. With four-lane roads, default speed limits of 25 mph and legal right turns on red,  I felt like I was learning in another country. Right turns on red in the Big Apple would lead to a 10-car pileup.

When I initially began, I was told I had the mark of a beginning driver: a tendency to drive toward the center of the road. And whenever I swerved, turned into the wrong lane or forgot to check my blind spot, Paul joked that I drove like a farmer. When I drove too fast, he told me to watch out — that I didn’t want to become a "happy driver," meaning too comfortable, or one of those guys who thinks he’s a NASCAR driver.

Paul joked that I should practice with a hot cup of coffee next to me, incentive to make my turns less wide and to drive slower. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that.

With a patient instructor, about eight more lessons and positive reinforcement, progress was made. Paul’s tips were golden. The “How to Pull Out of a Parking Spot Tango” was probably the most effective.

“It’s like a dance,” Paul jokingly told me one day, when pulling out didn’t go as well as I had hoped. “If you go in and do it all fast after just learning it, you look all silly, you know?”

Well then, I thought to myself, I couldn’t do that.

So, the tango soon became a real dance between the road and me. I was so desperate to get it right that I’m pretty sure I would have held a long-stemmed rose in my mouth if I thought it would help. And so, for all you drivers who are well acquainted with the road and might not remember the steps, here goes:

Step one: Let down your parking brake.
Step two: Turn your wheels so they are back to a neutral position, centered.
Step three: Signal.
Step four: Put the car in drive.
Step five: Check both mirrors and your blind spot.
Step six: Pull out and go.

Sounds easy, right? Well, for someone coming from a place where parking on hills is as rare as seeing a deer leap across the road, the rules didn’t sink in right away.

And while there were other differences in how I learned to drive — practicing parallel parking with rubber cones rather than actual cars, for example — I soon felt more comfortable behind the wheel. I could do this.

Soon, Paul’s camouflage “testing hat” with the patch “What Are You Hunting For? Jeremiah 29:13” became more familiar to me than the blue and orange Mets caps I grew up around. His soft-spoken encouragement and gentle "Good jobs," set me up for success. Toward the end, I wasn’t even caught off guard when a pickup that pulled in front of us had the word “Redneckin’” painted on it in bright orange.

And so on Nov. 21, with hours of lessons on Paris Road and Vandiver Drive now in my rear-view mirror, I came out of the Department of Motor Vehicles an official Missourian. I got a 72, passing with two points to spare.

Thanks, Paul.

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Panama Red December 29, 2008 | 10:09 a.m.

oh my god

(Report Comment)
Jess Blumensheid January 2, 2009 | 5:53 p.m.

I enjoy the tips in pulling out of parking spots, some that some "experienced" drivers in Columbia should revisit. Congratulations on passing.

(Report Comment)
Jenny Rogers January 3, 2009 | 6:43 p.m.

congratulations Stephanie!

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