the woman who cured my learner phobia

It has taken me two decades and a pandemic to do what most people achieve within reasonable proximity to turning 18: I am learning how to drive. The reason for this is simple: I tried to get my learners’ at 16 and failed the test. I slunk out of VicRoads shame-faced, so humiliated that I simply never tried again.

Is this a rational reaction to what is clearly a minor failure, one borne by many people who go on to get their licence on their second or third try? Obviously, no. But I am a vain person and dislike anything I am not immediately good at. I put the learner’s manual in a drawer where it haunted me for a time with the malevolence of a wronged ghost, until eventually I stopped thinking about it at all.

Public transport is fine, I justify to myself. It’s better for the environment, and really, it’s not that much trouble. My stance becomes entrenched. I am not someone who drives. Sure, I have to allow a minimum of 80 minutes’ travel time to get anywhere worth going to, but I get used it.

Credit: Robin Cowcher

I would have remained happily unlicensed if it were not for the pandemic. The pandemic! Suddenly the thought of spending 80 minutes trapped in proximity to pathogen-bearing strangers holds little appeal. Then, a miracle: VicRoads unveils an online version of the test, available to anyone with an internet connection. No public humiliation required. I study the handbook over the course of a weekend and – another miracle – pass the test on my first attempt!

But this, of course, is the easy part, the lowest hanging fruit on the towering tree of vehicular competency. Next, I have to confront what I’ve been avoiding for so long: I must actually learn to drive a car. My first forays on the road are under the guidance of friends, who are earnest and well meaning, but fundamentally fail to remember what it’s like to be a complete beginner. I disgrace myself by being unable to get through a lesson without crying, which starts to put a strain on my friendships, and after a minor road accident (parked car, side mirror), I resolve to seek the help of a professional.


I scroll through pages of driving instructors, who are overwhelmingly men of a certain age, all capable and avuncular and entirely not what I’m looking for. Finally, I come across a profile I like. She is a third-generation driving instructor, which strikes me as lovely and somehow mythic, like being the seventh son of a seventh son. I send a note when I book, explaining (over-explaining) that I am a nervous student, that I’m new to driving, that I want to take things very slowly. Glacially, if possible.

My instructor wears faded band t-shirts, cut-off denim, and scuffed Doc Marten boots. Her arms are peppered with stick ‘n’ poke tattoos. At any given time, there are multiple cans of spent Red Bull rolling around under the seats of her dual-pedal Corolla; despite this weakness for energy drinks, she is unflappably calm. She picks a route and we burble around the backstreets of suburbia at the (terrifying) speed of 20kmh. I grip the wheel as though my hands are the only thing holding it in place. After the lesson, my muscles take several hours to unseize.

My first few months of driving are hell. I make mistakes, repeatedly: I full-body the accelerator instead of the brake, fail to observe stop signs, overshoot corners and underestimate kerbs. For a long time, I feel like I will never improve. But my instructor comes to each lesson with such kindness, such grace, that I discover I want to keep trying. And slowly – glacially – I start to make progress.

There is a magic moment, I think, when it all starts to make sense: when I no longer have to think consciously about the mechanics of driving and experience the exhilarating, frictionless feeling of kinaesthetic memory. Eventually, your body just knows what to do. I still make mistakes, of course. But I find I don’t mind so much. It can be good to be made humble, even if it’s painful at the time. I tell myself to stay open to it: to failure as a part of learning. To its inevitability. Perhaps even to its necessity. All I need do is place my hands on the wheel, ease my foot down on the accelerator and begin.

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