My son is going to learn to drive a car with a manual transmission. He’s been driving for 6 years but has never driven a stick.  Now he’ll have to if he wants to inherit his sister’s car.

I learned to drive a stick shift with my best friend, Randy, on a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1965.  His dad’s ’53 Chevy had a push button starter, and a weak battery.  The old blue and white four-door was long past its prime, and the clutch already slipped a bit, so I guess his dad figured a little more wear and tear wouldn’t hurt.

Randy and I took turns behind the wheel, talking each other through the lurching and bucking that went with our inexperienced footwork.  We knew how shifting gears was supposed to go, but making it happen was a whole different thing.  Many of my starts involved revving of the engine while easing the clutch out slowly.  Oh that poor clutch plate.  On other starts, failed ones, I’d let the clutch out too quickly and the car would buck forward and the engine would die.  We had lots of motivation for avoiding this because of the weak battery.  Killing the engine on a level street involved pushing to get it started. We did most of our starts and stops and trading places on an incline.  At least if we killed the engine, we could coast to get it started.

With repeated attempts that afternoon, we each got better at matching the clutch work with the accelerator.  On those starts when the car inched forward smoothly, we each filled the air with loud “All-rights” and “Attaboys”.

I still grin when I think of that sunny East Texas afternoon more than 45 years ago.  But I learned something more than simply driving a car with a standard transmission.

I learned that getting moving from a dead stop is the hardest part.  Every time I start something new, I can expect a bumpy start.  When I took my first steps, I fell on my butt often (according to my mother).  When I learned to ride a bike, I wobbled back and forth all over Winona Avenue.  Every new school I attended, every new girl I dated, every new job I took, I could count on some emotional lurching back and forth.  As in driving a standard transmission, it was a lot easier going from first gear to second, and then to third once I was rolling.

I learned something else that Sunday afternoon.  Streets that were familiar to me as a passenger became confusing, even intimidating while driving.  Focusing on the new tasks related to shifting gears changed my perception of things that had been familiar.

In my years of working with college students, I observed students doing many of the same things they did in high school, like going to class (hopefully), doing homework, making friends, eating, sleeping, being social, all the rest.  However, they were doing all these familiar things in a new place, with new people, with a new awareness of the financial stakes, and no one was looking over their shoulder.  It was up to them.  Suddenly the familiar was more difficult and intimidating, at least at first.

My brother reminded me of a quote from one of his mentors, John Claypool.  “Life gets harder and harder, and better and better.”  That sounds simplistic during the “harder and harder” times.  But in fact, each difficult undertaking, each setback, each loss that inevitably comes with maturity also opens life up more and equips us with new capabilities.  The “better and better” may take time to recognize, but when I am open to learning the lessons of those “harder and harder” events, I do begin to realize the “better and better.”

Change and transition always include a lot of lurching forward and occasionally killing the engine and needing a push.  But once you get the clutchwork down, you can cruise.