On Learning How to Drive a Five-Speed

My first car… the Toyota on the street, that is.

I’m so jealous of anyone who can drive a vehicle with a manual transmission. If you are one of the lucky few, congratulations: you deserve a high-five and a cookie. For the last few months, I’ve been making my best attempts to join the exclusive club of stick-shifters. The learning experience has been traumatic all the way through.

We started in an empty church parking lot on the west side of Atlanta, conveniently situated on an hill. Since it was Saturday, the lot was empty save for stragglers collecting stray cans from the ground. I knew the basics: start in first, don’t ride the clutch, skillfully maneuver your feet. I also knew the approximate locations of the gears in relation to the shifter, thanks to a high school boyfriend who sometimes let me shift while he worked the clutch. I say ‘sometimes’ because those fun times ended when I accidentally put the car into reverse instead of fifth on the highway. Despite the utter lack of success, from my past experience, I thought learning would be a piece of cake.

The lesson began: turn on the car and get it to move.

“What do you mean I have to remove the clutch slowly?” I screamed by the fifth time the tires screeched, the car rocked, and the engine went dead. “I thought you took your foot off the clutch when you hit the gas!”

Eventually, after stalling almost a dozen times, I got the hang of the footwork. We sputtered and shook as the car shivered into first gear, but it happened. We headed straight across the asphalt. There was just enough time to hit second gear before we reached the edge of the lot.

“Stop! Stop!” begged my instructor. I slammed on the brake. With another mighty shake, the engine stalled. Of course I’d forgotten to hit the clutch.

After an hour of variations on this theme, I could successfully get the car in motion on a flat surface. I could put it into second gear and then come to a stop: my favorite part of the ordeal.

It was time to learn how to start on a hill.

We cruised over to the parking lot’s incline, only stalling once or twice on the way. I stopped, moved my right foot to the accelerator and left to the clutch… and stalled. We slipped backwards down the hill, narrowly missing one of the scavengers. My instructor grabbed the emergency brake and halted us for dear life. I opened the windows and turned off the ignition. We leaned back in our seats, breathing hard with fear (instructor) and frustration (me).

“Hey, wanna buy some walnuts?” asked an unshaven and likely homeless face in the now-open window.

“No, we’re good,” I demurred.

By that time I was completely fed up with driving stick, and decided it would be best to save the rest of the instruction for a new day. The next few lessons were held at night, on the open road. When midnight hit and Atlanta’s Midtown streets were quiet, we stuttered around in a little Honda, brakes squealing and engine rocking. It wasn’t bad. I understood the footwork – sort of – and shifted when told to do so. We even attempted the reverse gear, and despite getting stuck in a parking lot, things weren’t so bad.

Next came a few daylight drives. Supervised, I dutifully drove to work and out to a restaurant. Things were looking up. My instructor managed the emergency brake when we were on a hill and with his help, I avoided murdering anyone. With success came confidence, and with confidence came a longer evening drive to really test my skills. From my Midtown home, I drove onto the highway and up through Buckhead. Shifting like a champion, I offered to show my instructor some really cool houses in the Vinings area. (We both appreciate fine architecture, so it felt like a good idea). As I came to a stop at a traffic light, I noticed that we were on a hill. Going up. And behind me idled a BMW SUV, right at my back bumper and ready to go.

The light changed to green. I rolled backwards. Stalled. Laughed nervously.

After turning on the ignition again, I did the usual: slow lift-off from the clutch, quick slam on the gas. I was nervous and feeling the pressure from traffic idling behind me. We stalled again, the car shaking with indignation and clutch abuse.

Lather, rinse, repeat – five times. Horns honked. The light turned red. The BMW started to drive around me, windows down to extend a hearty curse in my direction. And I had a complete panic attack, so the only logical next step was to vault over the gear shift into the front seat and make my instructor drive me home.

It took a few days before I was ready to try again, but when I did, my instructor was really racking his brain for something that would make me understand what I was doing. Although I could technically operate the vehicle, it wasn’t by feel or intuition, but simply following orders. And then he told me a little trick: when you’re starting, pull your foot just a little bit off the clutch while accelerating, then when you feel the car starting to move forward, ease off the clutch slowly.

For some reason, this was the secret that I needed. But the experience was still so stressful that my instructor took to videotaping my aghast facial expressions as I practiced manipulating the clutch on inclines. So now I’m somewhat capable of driving the thing but it’s still stressful, and the car still shakes sometimes for reasons I can only guess at.

But I’m getting a new car in July when my lease runs out, and you better believe I’ll be trying to find a six-speed!


2 thoughts on “On Learning How to Drive a Five-Speed

  1. Xavier Flores

    As the instructor I am pleased to report, that the very few classes paid off huge dividends. It is easy to teach when you have a great student, and Julie mastered it extremely fast. To her resume we may add, mastering the highways of Atlanta Georgia… with traffic, and at 100 degrees. Mastering the interstate driving, maintaining the speed limit, down-shifting, and singing out loud at the same time. I do not think that there is a task too hard for you Julie, and I am honored to be part of these accomplishments. Thank you for keeping our lives so interesting… Love you!

  2. Marvis Carswell

    I’m one of the “few” then! Hehe! Daddy was my very first driving instructor. It really pays to learn how to drive on a manual transmission first before going to the automatic one. In my case, I didn’t really find it hard to learn how to drive an automatic, but I’m just a little bit confused since I started from the manual transmission. =)


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