Looking Back
October 16, 2015

Learning to drive

Learning to drive

Back in the 1960s when I was old enough to get my license, the high school I attended (Mount St. Joseph Academy, or MSJ) did not have driver education. In my youth there didn’t seem to be the urgency that today’s teens have to get a license. Once you got your license most kids drove the family car. Very few had their own.

Apparently I realized at a young age the responsibilities that are undertaken when you get behind the wheel. I wasn’t ready for them when I was in high school.

When I was a sophomore in college I finally asked for a driving lesson. My father was wise enough to not be the parent who took on that task. My mother had that “privilege”. Looking back I realize how nervous she was to let me get behind the wheel. My father was much more laid back but apparently he wanted no part in this venture.

My parents had just one car, a full size Chevy Bel Air with standard transmission and wide fins on the back. It looked huge to me and I knew some skill was required in order to not roll it backwards on hills.

The chosen spot for the first driving lesson was Dorr Drive, a nice quiet road in the western section of Rutland. The beauty of this road was that it goes straight to Wallingford with relatively no hills or curves. I got behind the wheel with sweaty palms and lots of anticipation. My mother looked rather pale and even more nervous than I did. She explained that I should let out the clutch slowly as I stepped on the gas. The car “bucked” and she gasped. After a few lurches I was off!

I drove to the Alfrecha Road in North Clarendon and by then my mother’s nerves had enough for the day. I turned around and headed back. As we approached the Dorr Drive bridge my mother told me to pull off the road and she would drive home. That request was acceptable for our first outing but this pattern went on for several weeks. Eventually the lessons stopped.

During the summer before my junior year in college everyone realized that a professional driver education instructor was needed. After all, I would be student teaching in my senior year and being driven to school by a parent would have looked more than a little odd!

Frankie Perry was the professional chosen as my instructor. His car had a second brake on the passenger side . . . no chances were being taken on his watch! He was such a nice man and so calming: a perfect match for yours truly. The car I learned on had automatic transmission and was much smaller than our car. I was driving all over Rutland on the first lesson, hills and all. No rolling problems . . . no “bucking”. . . life was good. Mr. Perry was so relaxed that as the lessons progressed he would fall asleep and I had no idea where I should be going! It seems like “Henry the Eighth” by Herman’s Hermits was always playing as I chose the streets to travel on. Was Mr. Perry really sleeping or just letting me gain my independence? I will never know!

After several weeks it was time to take the driving exam. Mr. Perry gave me one last lesson in parallel parking and the rules of the road. At the end of the lesson I had a meltdown and the exam was postponed. I never did like exams!

After some encouragement from him and my parents, I took the exam a week later and passed with flying colors. But I still had a problem. I was back to driving standard shift, as the party was over with Mr. Perry’s automatic transmission. I had a couple more lessons on our car and finally I was ready to go somewhere by myself.

I admit there were butterflies in my stomach as I drove down our street. I am sure my mother had them too as she watched me. Over the next year or so my confidence grew to the point where my mother sometimes thought I was getting a little cocky. When she would give me unsolicited advice about driving, I would tell her that I hadn’t had an accident yet. She would tell me not to brag.

My father passed away just before my senior year in college and my mother bought a small, automatic car. We both felt much more comfortable behind the wheel. I proudly drove that car to my student teaching at Proctor High School. I felt like a grown-up at last! But some of my students probably had their license longer than I did.

By the time I got my first teaching job at Wallingford High School I had purchased a yellow Camaro with a black vinyl top and bucket seats. One of my students used to stand by my car as I left each day and say, “Burn the rubber, Miss Whalen!” Guess I must have picked up a little confidence and speed since my Dorr Drive days!

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