Learning to drive later in life is as much a part of being a native New Yorker as keeping take-out menus in the refrigerator, never visiting the Statue of Liberty or checking for your wallet after someone bumps into you.
Still, after I failed my driver’s test for the sixth time I had to face the fact that my motor skills sucked more than the average New Yorker’s. I would have spent the rest of my life on subways and riding shotgun, but the offer of a new reporting job, which required a driver’s license, convinced me to give it one last try.
So at age 31 I headed over to the Big Apple Driving School on 106th and Broadway, where I met Carlos, who taught me how to drive and just about everything I needed to know to raise my children.
1. Take the emotion out of your voice
Unlike previous teachers I had—one of whom yelled, “What are you doing? You’re going to get us both killed,”–no matter how hairy the situation, Carlos never raised his voice. Even if I almost killed us–and in NYC rush hour traffic, I did almost kill us–I never felt demeaned or belittled. He stayed calm and I remained calm, which I always do with my kids. (Um, not really, but I do try.)
2. Focus on the positive
True, I may have forgotten to signal when I pulled out of my spot, but I did remember to adjust the mirror and look in it. Carlos always told me what I did right, before telling me what I needed to correct. When the children’s rooms are a mess and their homework is still not done, I can always find one thing that they’re doing right. Well…at least some of the time.
3. Give specific feedback
Instead of vague directions like, “Pay attention to what you’re doing,” Carlos’ told me exactly what to do: “Look in the mirror and over your shoulder.” Just like I try to do with my own kids. You know, use a tissue to wipe your nose, not the bathroom wall.
4. Don’t overwhelm
I’m thoroughly convinced one of the reasons I failed my driving test so many times was because as an older learner there was too much information to focus on. Carlos didn’t talk a lot, but when he did he gave me one suggestion at a time. “Hands at 10 and 2,” for example.
So…‘Wash your hands’ is good advice for a kid.
‘Wash your hands, be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails, and hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice while you’re doing it to make sure they’re really clean.’
It took more than 60 hours in the car with Carlos, but I eventually past the test on my seventh try. That was years ago.
Recently I ran into my former instructor. There were so many things I wanted to say about how my life had changed since having kids and how I often thought about the hours we spent together. But, like he showed me, I tried not to dilute meaning with too many words.
Instead I just said, “I still remember everything you taught me. Thank you.”