• Kathleen Cassen Mickelson

How Good Are You at Shifting Gears?

My daughter got her driver’s permit yesterday. Her very first lesson in my car, with a manual transmission, happened about two hours later. On her first try, she got the shift stick positioned in first gear, let out the clutch, punched the gas, and killed the car approximately five feet up the driveway. She had forgotten to release the emergency brake. As the smell of singed rubber lingered in our nostrils, I politely said, “Okay. Try it again.”

On the next try, she put the clutch in, released the emergency brake, held her right foot on the brake pedal as she started the engine. Shift into reverse. No sense taking out the garage door on the first day. Oops! She let out the clutch too fast. And the engine died again.

She looked at me accusingly as she said, “Can we please put the car out on the street where it’s flat?”

Oh, good point, I thought. We have a whopping five-degree slope in our driveway. I’m sure that’s quite a challenge for a new driver. Mind-numbing, maybe. Who knows? I took the driver’s seat, backed out of the driveway, and parked the car in front of our house. Perfectly flat. Mailboxes a good half-block away. No one around, not even a small child on a tricycle. Birds held their breath as my daughter tried again.

And then we were off! We lurched down the street, got the speed up enough for me to gasp, “All right! Shift into second! Clutch in! Foot off gas! No, not on the brake! Shift! Step on the gas!” I barked orders like a drill sergeant. And we made it all the way down the street, careened around the corner where, thankfully, no one else was coming as my daughter steered directly into the oncoming lane, over-corrected, and got close enough to another set of mailboxes that I felt compelled to reach over and briefly turn the steering wheel just a bit more to the left. Around another corner, all the way to a stop sign, and then it was my turn to step in again. We switched places so I could steer the car out onto a busy road, go around another corner, and return to the bit of pavement in front of our house. Park. Switch places. Repeat.

Writing is like this sometimes. Starting up, lurching out into the draft, shifting gears as we wonder where we’re going anyway. And then we stall out. Start again. Lurch some more, maybe get up to a new speed until we hit a stop sign. Squeal around a corner and, wow, there’s a whole new view. A new idea rushes at us from the other direction. Sometimes, we don’t want anyone to see us careening around on the page, trying this avenue, then that one. But the only way to get the story done is to keep at it. Keep trying. Keep starting up, shifting, and figure out how to keep the thing running when we come to a stop sign.

Today, I had another lesson with my daughter. She stalled out several times in an intersection, so I switched places once again, drove to an empty parking lot, and got her back in the driver’s seat. She managed to drive around the lot, stop, shift into first, and get going again several times over. She’s not crazy about this manual transmission, but I’m convinced she’ll get a feel for it. And she’ll have some great stories to tell when she goes back to school in the fall. 

DO A KIND THING

Got an old car and no kid to give it to? Even a car that you really wouldn’t want to give someone because it needs so much repair? Here’s a thought: donate it. 

Last summer, when my son’s car faced a potential repair bill higher than the car’s worth, we wondered what to do. We ended up donating the car to Newgate Education Center in Minneapolis, where the car would serve as a tool to teach students how to repair automobiles. It would then be donated again to a person in need. It was the perfect solution. Don’t live in the Twin Cities? Simply Google “car donation” and you’ll find lots of options.

Teach Your Kid To Drive & Come Home Alive!

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