Last week, Jordan got his learner’s permit, and on Saturday, he drove a car for the first time. (We were in an empty parking lot where I gripped the side of the car and literally sweat the entire time. When he accelerated, and I said, “Slow down,” he replied with, “Mom, we were going 5 (mph). I upped it to 10.”)
Teaching the next generation of drivers got me thinking about my own driving experience and especially, my trouble with the driving test – a ‘dark’ period in my teen years.
Back then, the driving test was not on the road, but on a course where you performed tasks like driving between cones, stopping at a stop sign, observing pedestrian crossings, and parking. I’m sure there were other things, too, but these stand out in my memory.
A learner’s permit had three boxes for the testers to punch holes in if the drivers failed. (at least I think it was holes – could be another mark to indicate failure) Once you failed three times, you had to get a new permit. I didn’t know anyone who had failed that many times – most of my friends who had their licenses failed at most once or twice. I was ready to join them in the world of licensed drivers.
After driving for a few months with my parents and instructors, I asked my dad to take me to the Trevose testing center on a Saturday morning. We waited in line, and when it was my turn, a woman wearing a scowl came out to our car. Oh boy. This was going to be fun. I smiled and said hello to Mean Lady, and she nodded briskly. I got onto the course easily enough and was doing fine until near the end, when I gently tapped a barrel. (Disclaimer: I think it was while parking – I actually have accounts of every test and why I failed written down, and this one says ‘hit barrel at the end’!)
Mean Lady gestured to the parking area and said, “Park right here. You failed. You also did not completely stop at the pedestrian crossing earlier.” She took my permit and punched a hole in the first box.
I nodded, disappointed, but wasn’t overly upset. I knew failing was a possibility on my first try. My dad was waiting for me, and I approached him with a long face.
“It’s okay,” he said. “We’ll go again in a few weeks, and you’ll pass.” We met my mom and Marni at Sandwich Board (our neighborhood breakfast place), and they also cheered me up and said positive things about succeeding the next time.
Monday back at school, friends asked how I’d fared, and I showed them my permit with the punched hole. For some reason, we compared permits during this process – I have no idea why, as they didn’t have photos or anything remotely interesting on them.
Confidence boosters like “You’ll pass next time. No biggie.” and “Which tester did you have? Oh yeah, she’s really mean,” were the general responses.
If at first you don’t succeed…
A few weeks later, my dad and I returned to Trevose, and I prayed silently to not have Mean Lady as my tester. A short man walked toward our car.
I put on my biggest smile, and he somewhat smiled back. Our rapport had already surpassed what I had with Mean Lady, so hopefully this would be a better day. We once again went onto the course, and I began the serpentine, a section where you had to drive around cones in a snakelike manner. Somehow, I had cleared it the last time. This time, I felt a small thud and realized I’d hit a cone.
“Pull over right here,” Short Man instructed. “I have to stop the test now.”
Ugh. I was holding back tears. And when I found my dad in the waiting area, the tears were already falling.
“It’s ok,” he said. “You’ll definitely pass soon – third time’s the charm!”
We entered Sandwich Board, me still a little teary, and Marni and my mom, upbeat and encouraging about the next time.
Back at school, I told much fewer people about the failed test. I now had two holes in my permit and if I failed a third time, I would have to get a new one.
My dad and I arrived at the course for my third attempt, and a much older man walked toward our car. This was a positive sign – I had worked at a nursing home the previous summer in the activities department and connected with many of the residents. I really missed seeing them every day and was looking forward to going back that summer. Seniors loved me.
I greeted him, and we made small talk as I pulled onto the ramp. Unfortunately, as I exited the serpentine, he said, “I’m sorry. You need to pull into a spot. You went over the white line.” Even though I hadn’t hit the cone, I had veered the car over the border of the serpentine area. Oh, come on!
I could tell Older Man genuinely felt badly, as he punched a third hole in my permit. Three strikes and you’re out.
“This is ridiculous,” I cried to my dad, when I found him in the waiting area. “I hate the serpentine. Why can’t they get rid of it? I’m never going to get my license!”
“Of course you’ll get your license. We’ll just go to a practice area and work on it. I’m sure you’ll pass next time,” my dad said. And as always, my mom and Marni tried to cheer me up at Sandwich Board, but after three fails, it was not as easy.
Is this starting to sound like Groundhog Day to you?
Stay off those California roads
It was some time before I went back again because I had to renew my permit. My stomach dropped as Mean Lady walked toward the car. I was nervous from the get go, and she did nothing to put me at ease. When I inevitably touched the white line during the serpentine, and she had me pull into a spot so she could fail me, I lost it.
“This test is not real!” I cried.
“What?” she snapped, shaking her head.
“Why isn’t this done on the road?” I went on. “The road is real. Don’t you want to see me make a left turn? Yield? Stop at a stop sign with other cars? Change lanes? Do anything with actual traffic? Shouldn’t that count instead of this stupid serpentine?”
She stared at me for a few seconds and then said, somewhat kindly, “You’re right. And there really aren’t roads like the serpentine around here. Actually, the only place you’ll find a road this narrow and twisted is in California.”
I felt a glimmer of hope for the first time. “I have an idea!” I exclaimed, my eyes brightening now that Mean Lady was being sympathetic. “Pass me and I promise to never drive in California. You can even put it on my license!”
She stared at me again and suddenly burst out laughing. “You’re too much! That would certainly be something!”
I wasn’t trying to be funny…
We walked into the waiting area. “Have a good day,” she said, as I found my dad. I could hear her laughing as she left. “No driving in California…I love it…”
“I’m sorry,” my dad said when he saw my sad face.
“On the bright side,” I replied glumly, “I think I won over Mean Lady.”
I’d prefer a dental appointment
Test 5 and I had lucked out with Cute Guy, the tester everyone wanted, who had a great smile and put all drivers at ease. I was still nervous, and my face probably showed it because he said, “This isn’t a dental appointment. It’s a drivers’ exam. Have fun with it!”
At this point, I would have welcomed a teeth cleaning, but I tried to smile and made my way into the serpentine… and when I finished, he didn’t say anything. “Should I keep going?” I asked in surprise.
“Yep,” he said, easily.
“I didn’t touch the line?” I asked again, incredulously.
“Nope, you’re doing great.”
OMG! I did the serpentine. I did the serpentine!!!! My heart was light and I was beaming from ear to ear – and practically dancing in my seat. In fact, I was so excited and distracted due to my success that I rolled right through a stop sign.
“You didn’t fully stop,” he said. “I’m so sorry, but I have to fail you.”
Nonononononono!! And… back to reality.
“Please!” I begged. “This is my fifth time. I was just so excited because I finally passed the serpentine. What if you just take my serpentine from this time and my stop sign from my first test and pass me?” Yes, this was me grasping at straws.
“We can’t do that,” he said, chuckling. “But I give you points for creativity.”
Apparently, while I was crying to Marni later about how I’m going to be the only person in the world without a license, my dad (a saint through this entire process) was whispering to my mom, “I don’t know what else to do. I’m running out of things to tell her when she fails.“
Chai and a good luck charm
May 1, 1993 was a sunny Saturday, and Marni decided she was going to come with us to the test and be my good luck charm. “You probably failed all these times because I wasn’t there,” was her logic. My mom also pointed out the date – 5+1+9+3 = 18, which is chai, a Hebrew word meaning “life.” It’s considered a spiritual number and maybe it would also bring me luck.
I wasn’t the least bit confident. By this point, I’d resigned myself to years of Saturdays at Trevose, catching up with my friends, Mean Lady, Cute Guy, Short Man and Older Man. Maybe they could start joining us for holiday dinners, given how they’d become such an integral part of my life.
Older Man came to our car and it reminded me we were a little over a month away from summer vacation, and I’d be back at the nursing home soon with my favorite residents. I clearly would be relying on my dad to drive me there and back. Sigh…
If I failed again, I’d be on my third permit. That had to be a Guinness Book of World Records thing. (side note: It’s not. Apparently, there are people who have taken the test hundreds of times! But without Google, my frame of reference was my friends.)
By some miracle, I stopped completely at the pedestrian crossing, cleared the serpentine, did a full stop at the stop sign, and didn’t hit any barrels.
“Congratulations!” Older Man exclaimed with a smile. “You passed!”
“A license? I finally get a license?” I asked, shaking my head in shock. And then I started to cry – this time from relief. I cried when I found my dad and Marni. “It’s good,” I said through my tears when they approached me with concerned looks. “I passed!”
“Thank G-d,” my dad probably thought to himself. “It’s over.”
“I knew you would. It’s all because I’m here,” Marni said confidently. We hugged, and I cried more. I would soon cry again at Sandwich Board with my mom.
And behind a closed door at Trevose, I’m pretty sure Mean Lady, Older Man, Cute Guy and Short Man popped open a bottle of champagne — and toasted to finally getting rid of me.
Side note 1: My parents made me a gag video for my high school graduation. As part of it, they drove to Trevose and filmed the course so I could always reminisce about my favorite place!
Side note 2: I know the testers had actual names. I just never knew what they were, and when I relayed stories to my family and a few friends, I used these aliases. They are not meant to be offensive in any way.