Passing lane

Instructor Mr. C uses reinforcement to ease new students into driving
Thursday, February 12, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:00 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The first thing Mr. C told me to do was relax.

This is the first thing he tells everyone to do when they get into his car. After teaching people to drive for 24 years, Mr. C has learned how to get new drivers to calm down.

“I have to get them to control their mind,” Mr. C said. “They want to get that license so bad, but I have to teach them not to let fear get in the way.”

Some never have been behind a driver’s wheel and most never have met their instructor, which can make many nervous, he said. He has learned to help people relax by telling jokes and giving them positive reinforcement.

“I try to keep it light-hearted,” said Steve Cavanaugh of Mr. C’s Driving School. “If they relax, they drive better.”

Cavanaugh did not choose to become a driving instructor. In many ways, it chose him. Originally from Granite City, Ill., he came to Columbia in 1965 on an MU wrestling scholarship. After college, he wanted to be a wrestling coach, but before graduation his coach gave him a tip: Take driving instruction courses.

“That turned out to be very good advice,” Mr. C said. “I didn’t think so at the time, but it’s kept me working all of these years.”

During his first couple of years as a driving instructor, Mr. C said he was terrified and his students were terrified, but over time he has learned to relax and get others to do the same.

On a day in January, I accompanied Mr. C on a drive to Jefferson City, where Rosalba Johnson was waiting to take her driver’s test. Although Mr. C is from Columbia, he travels to nearby towns for a little extra pay.

As the sun reflected off his aviator sunglasses he turned to me and smiled, “To tell you the truth, I enjoy the drive.”

Johnson, who is originally from Colombia in South America, had been working on her driving for about a month. For Johnson, a housewife, a license means freedom to leave her house during the day when her husband cannot drive her to the grocery store or the gym.

“This is a different car,” she said as she climbed in the car and the retractable seat belt swung back at her.

After laughing with Johnson about her seat belt troubles, Mr. C began going through the driving test. “Left blinker,” he said, and she repeated his words while following the command, remembering the name of each part. About 50 percent of his customers are from another country, Mr. C said.

“It’s hard to learn to drive and speak English at the same time,” Johnson said.

Through repetition, Mr. C worked to make Johnson comfortable with every button and its name as well as the route she would drive an hour and a half later for her test.

Confidence is something Mr. C tries to instill in all of his drivers by establishing a level of comfort, both with him and the material covered on the test. It seemed to work, at least for Johnson. As she repeatedly drove the same route and parked in the same places, I watched her confidence grow and her driving improve.

After about two hours, Mr. C told Johnson to park at the driver’s bureau and get ready for the test.

“You have two jobs,” Mr. C said to Johnson as we walked into the brick building. “No. 1: relax. No. 2: if you mess up, do not worry, just keep going.”

A half hour later Johnson was having her picture taken for her new license and calling her husband from her cell phone to tell him the good news.

“I have found out through my life that I like to restore things: souls, cars and drivers,” Mr. C said. “I like to teach kids how to drive because when they first come to me, they are raw. I can see the potential, but I must restore them into a good driver.”

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