Learning to drive was for me a slow, torturous experience, the equivalent of being stuck in the six o’clock traffic jam, shackled by an endless line of fenders. The entire process took slightly less than one year of my life, an absurd amount of time to spend navigating parking lots and side roads at odd times during the weekend, so that no one else might be at risk while I was behind the wheel. Eventually,I learned how to drive, and even more about myself in the process. Just don’t ask me to parallel park!
I will never forget the first time I sat behind the wheel of a car. We had come home from the DMV and I was still giddy with the excitement of holding a freshly minted driver’s permit in my hand. After my dad parked the car in the driveway, I got out and went to the door, as I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get to drive that day. To my surprise, my dad offered me the keys. I got back in the car, this time in the driver’s seat, and saw for a moment, a vision of myself in the near future, racing away in a Lamborghini. I glanced at the dashboard, and gripped the faux leather steering. Then, my dad said, “Ok, just press the brake and shift it into reverse.” Suddenly anticipation gave way to apprehension, as I looked down at my right leg and thought, “Here we go…” I tried to give it a gentle touch but the car flew down the driveway, and I frantically turned the wheel left in a desperate, but largely useless attempt to assert control. My father was a symphony of nonsensical yells and unintelligible hand gestures, trying to tell me to slow down, but I was completely lost. I tried to stop this madness, and stomped what I thought was the brake and suddenly saw the rear end of my neighbor’s silver SUV get bigger and bigger.My dad, acting on pure instinct, grabbed the wheel with one hand and swerved our car away from danger and shouted at the top of his lungs “Braaaake”. I looked down, and hit the other, larger pedal,and ended the roller coaster. My dad looked beet red and was breathing heavy, like he had just finished a marathon. After a respectable distance of ten yards from our house, we decided to call it a day.
The problem was that I was extremely left footed. This was my foot of choice in soccer, stepping off curbs, and hypothetically, in dance. While I was driving, I could either focus on the road, or on the right foot, but not on both. I longed to use my left foot, but my father had a valid argument in that driving with the left foot could be uncomfortable, cramped, and potentially unsafe. Undaunted,I continued the lesson the next day, and the day after that, and the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months. By this time, we had gotten our Altima out of our neighborhood and into the adjacent elementary school parking lot, where I navigated the same routes the bus drivers and parents used when dropping their kids off, but as far as real, on the road driving experience went, I had none. And my poor father suffered alongside me, for though I was frustrated at my incremental,often nonexistent progress, he felt exasperated and anxious, and he always prayed that no evil would befall our only chariot. Eventually, my mother had seen enough. She was tired of seeing our either disappointed or angry faces coming home after driving. And when the occasional argument flared up between my father and me, she was caught in the crossfire. She told us, “I think you guys need professional help.”
And that was how I came to know Raju, a certified instructor from Atlanta Driving School, a firm that catered almost exclusively to Indians near Atlanta. He just showed up one Thursday, after my mom arranged the appointment, with his blue Ford Focus and an Aloha shirt, looking like a latecomer for a luau. We exchanged the necessary introductions and then he laughed gregariously, and tossed me the keys. Once in the car, I felt totally at ease. The beige cloth seats, and matching brown dashboard complete with smiling elephant tusked Hindu idol calmed me. And then, the short, balding Indian man with the slightly yellow, but nevertheless cheery, smile calmed me too. I asked, “Is it okay if I drive with my left foot?” He said, ‘If you don’t mind sitting with your legs crossed, I don’t care,” and off we went. I wanted to go to the familiar parking lot, but he said, “No, no, no. We’ll use the public roads.”
“I’ve never driven on the roads before.”
“It’s easy. Anybody can do it. Just press the gas and go. Gas and go!”
That day, driving was emancipation. I could focus on the road without worrying about my feet, and travel comfortably at speeds I had never before reached. Plus, Raju kept a relaxed demeanor inthe passenger’s seat, which in turn relaxed me. He also had a plethora of useful tips on how to drive,some philosophical, some funny. “Driving is an art, not a science. Feel the road ahead,” and my personal favorite, “Watch out for women drivers.” I returned home exhilarated, and after just a few lessons, over the course of two weeks, my confidence and ability grew tremendously. Raju even, at my behest, let me take the car onto the highway, a day I will always remember for the thrill of taking my car to seventymiles an hour, before I realized how fast I was going. After a month, my lessons with Raju were finished,and just as he had predicted, I got my license.
Driving, like many other things in life, is a never-ending learning endeavor, and I’m still learning how to drive. And as with any kind of education, I have gained other tidbits of wisdom that I never intended to know. For example, the best way to calm someone is to make them laugh a little. Or that despite the ups and downs in life, the best thing one can do is just focus and keep on persevering.It’s certainly a clichéd idea, but with enough determination, anything that can be dreamed can be accomplished. If you still need more proof, here’s my ID.