Learning to Drive a Stick-Shift

I learned to drive a stick-shift car in a hilly city. When our old car died, I agreed to buy a stick-shift because gasoline prices were rising and because, when I watched my husband, changing gears looked easy. But what seemed effortless from the passenger seat felt complex behind the wheel.

I had more control, I found. I could choose when to shift gears instead of the car deciding for me. But in the driver’s seat, too much needed to happen at the same time. I had to remember when to put a foot on the brake and on the clutch and when to release the clutch and to do that slowly. I had to keep the car from stalling and from rolling backward down the street from the traffic light at the top of the hill. I had to master the interplay between the clutch and gas pedals to keep from lugging or racing the engine. For weeks the car lurched and bucked like a bull. Beside me drivers glared, and behind me horns honked.

Learning to drive a car with a manual transmission reminded me of my first year in the classroom. Teaching is so simultaneous. At the same time I conjugated verbs with the class, one student passed a note to another, an announcement came over the loud speaker, the guidance counselor brought a new student through the door, the boy in the back row waved one hand frantically and pointed to the restroom pass with the other, and an office helper came for the attendance sheet.

Nothing came to me automatically that first year. I had to think about every move, teaching without instinct, without having the feel. And I had to keep teaching, despite the jolts of the sudden starts and stops and even with disapproving looks from more experienced teachers and irate phone calls from parents who didn’t want a first-year teacher for their kid.

By degrees, the habits of teaching became more instinctual. I learned to retrieve a passed note without pausing in a read-aloud, to nod to a waving hand while I answered the door, to delegate attendance sheets to a trusted student. I was more able to anticipate how to keep parents happy and how to seek advice from experienced teachers instead of irritating them.

And I found that I loved a profession layered with activity, pulsing with multiple rhythms. Teaching, I discovered, wasn’t boring.

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