How I ended up learning to drive at 39

If you think driver’s ed is difficult and scary for teenagers, try doing it as an adult

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Last year my wife and I, along with our infant son, moved from a condo in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago to a basement in Marietta.

Four months earlier, I had been let go from a staff writing job at the Dissolve, a short-lived film website, and with an eight-month-old to provide for, even our exceedingly modest lifestyle in Chicago had become prohibitively expensive. So we did what people often do when everything falls apart: We moved in with the folks.

I thought I would live in Chicago until the day I died. But life has a way of forcing you to improvise, to adjust, to do things you never imagined. For me, a lifelong Midwesterner, one of the greatest adjustments involved learning to drive.

How did I become one of those weirdos who somehow managed to make it to almost 40 without ever obtaining a driver’s license? Partly because in Chicago, a city with a world-class public transportation system, I could get pretty much wherever I needed to go by train or bus. And partly because I spent most of my teenage years in a group home, where the fact that I didn’t drive was among the least embarrassing aspects of my existence.

As an adult, I prided myself on being a public transit user. I had long ago learned how to smoothly navigate a car-free existence. But in Marietta, a city that has famously chosen to eschew MARTA, a car-free existence became a whole lot more difficult. I had no idea how to get anywhere. My life shrunk to revolve around a two-and-a-half-mile loop that I could traverse by foot. Every morning I’d walk to Sam’s BBQ, or to the nearest Goldberg’s, or to Publix, with their glorious submarine sandwiches; plug in my laptop; boot up the Wi-Fi; and get to work.

Before we moved, I almost never needed a ride. But now that we were living with my wife’s parents, I didn’t want to become reliant on them or Uber. So with some gentle (and not-so-gentle) nudging from my wife and my mother-in-law, I conceded that the time had finally come for me to learn how to drive.

I enrolled in Taggart’s Driving School, a den of automotive learning within walking distance of my Marietta basement. The moment I stepped through the doors, I felt like I had stepped back in time, and not just because the wood-paneled interior of the school looked like it had not changed since 1992. Hell, 1982.

As an introductory exercise, the teacher asked each student to rattle off his or her name, school, and favorite activities. The girl in front of me was 15, a high school freshman whose activities included debate team and gymnastics. A pair of handsome juniors sleepily replied that they played on the football team.

Then it was my turn. “Uh, Nathan Rabin. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in the late ’90s. Activities? Uh, marriage, fatherhood—our baby just turned one—uh, home ownership, worrying about retirement and insurance and taxes. That’s about it.” My classmates’ eyes barely flickered. They seemed wholly uninterested in an old dude and his oddball journey to driving school.

My teacher was Mrs. Ross, a middle-aged black woman with a wild mop of frizzy hair and a perpetually distracted gaze. She reminded me of Dr. Hibbert, the sonorous physician on The Simpsons, who shared Mrs. Ross’s unnerving habit of chuckling at inappropriate moments. What invariably sent Mrs. Ross into hysterics was the promise of youthful brains splattered across the highway after some imbecilic kid made a deadly mistake behind the wheel. Indeed, the lessons made it seem certain that we would get into a car accident, probably of the fatal variety.

I was pretty jittery about the idea of driving, and the stories of grisly deaths rattled me a bit. When I was a kid, my father, a single parent, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He got into a lot of traffic accidents; eventually he abandoned his last car to be picked up by the state after the brakes failed completely. I only attempted one driving lesson as a teenager, and truth be told, that was largely as a pretext to hit on an attractive, slightly older manager at Blockbuster Video. That hour-long experience did little to change my conviction that driving might be a perfectly fine pastime for everybody else in the universe, but it was not for me.

Mrs. Ross punctuated her lessons by turning on one of her many driver’s ed films, most of which were older than the other students in the class. One seatbelt video aptly starred the Crash Test Dummies; another featured 1990s luminaries MC Hammer and Craig T. Nelson, who I learned had his own auto racing team called the Screaming Eagles. There was a Dr. Phil video on texting and driving, in which the Oprah protégé, in his role as America’s official scold, directed his homespun wrath at an arrogant teen girl who thought it was okay to text and drive because she was so good at texting. (Spoiler: It’s not okay.)

Then came the real test: getting behind the wheel. For our first two hours of in-car instruction, I was overcome with anxiety and self-consciousness. I kept switching my foot from the brake pedal to the accelerator with a jerkiness that clearly terrified my teacher. The roads we drove on only a mile or two from home were nearly empty, but I was afraid I’d cause an accident all the same.

By the third lesson, however, something borderline miraculous happened: I could feel myself becoming a better driver. It would be exaggeration to say that I felt confident, but I was less overtaken with fear. There were even blessed moments when driving stopped being terrifying and became merely boring. For the first time, I began to act reflexively, without worrying. I didn’t have to think about how to make a left turn or a right turn; it just happened—and while that might seem like an achievement so negligible it doesn’t really even deserve to be called an achievement, I was giddy.

Even as an adult, learning how to drive is still a strangely tricky, oddly emotional coming-of-age moment. I had long considered not driving to be a central component of my identity—an Apatowian man-child who wears Phish hoodies religiously and makes a modest living writing about the sillier side of entertainment. Really, though, my refusal was masking a deeper truth. Growing up poor and disadvantaged, I learned to do without. I also felt a lot of anxiety, but that fear ultimately held me back. I’ve realized that while I can do without, I want more for my son.

I still need some more practice before I take my driver’s license test. When I finally do, I’ll shed a little bit more of that anxious, insecure, and scared 16-year-old that I used to be. I like to think he’d be proud of me, but more importantly, so will my family—my in-laws, my long-suffering wife, and my son, who is my reason for doing everything. Even if he’s not quite old enough to understand why his daddy is so excited to finally accomplish something that’s more or less expected of even the laziest high school senior.

Nathan Rabin is a columnist and former head writer for the Onion’s A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently You Know Me but You Don’t Like Me. He hopes to take his driving test soon.

This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.