I took my UK driver’s test today. At 42, I’ve had plenty of practice taking tests in my life. I completed my last big test, my oral exam for my doctoral dissertation, last year. As an educator, I’ve also had lots of practice inflicting tests on others. (Even more practice inflicting surveys.)

Should it be surprising, then, that I was extremely nervous? After I calmed down from the experience, I’ve been reflecting a bit on why.

At first, I guess, I was nervous about what I would be tested on. Driving, of course, but under what circumstances and by what criteria? I’ve been driving since I was 15 and have a very good record … what’s to worry? Lots, it would seem, based on the feedback I received from my instructor. Prior to taking the driving test, I signed up for 8 hours of driving lessons. Two hours a day, four straight days of continual humiliation. I’ve been driving a manual transmission all my life, and in five minutes I was told everything I’ve learned over 25 years was rubbish. I couldn’t pull out from the curb without getting a scolding (you didn’t look over your right shoulder … did you see that car around the corner … did you hear that child come out of her apartment in the next block who is thinking about running into the street in front of you around the next corner).

To be fair, my instructor was kind and lovely, she was just ruthless. She hammered me about everything. When I bumped into the curb while doing a three-point turn she calmly told me that if I did that when I took the test I’d fail. Then she made me do it again … and again … and again. At the end of the first day, we pulled over and she recalled all the things I did right and then told me that tomorrow we’d work on my use of the clutch, my turns, my speed, my signaling, the closeness with which I passed cars on the left. Overall, a really good start, she said.

Ugh.

Every day this week, I had to leave work around lunch time to go for my lessons and then come back and give a report to my colleagues. It was all very public, and everybody knew I was taking the test today. I woke up this morning much more nervous than I was expecting, and my mind was already playing all the usual tricks:

  • Oh, you don’t really care.
  • Driving is bad for the environment, you really don’t want this.
  • The whole system is fixed to have people fail so the government can make more money.

Waiting to get picked up by my instructor this morning, I paced the floor in my apartment. I washed my hands. I retied my shoes. During our warm-ups on the way to the test center I hit the curb. I stopped and gave a pleading look to my instructor. “Failed?” I asked. She nodded.

As we pulled into the test center, she had me do a reverse park into the bay in front of the building. I nailed it. Finally, some confidence was coming back. Then, as we sat in the waiting room, I noticed that I had parked on an incline. What happened if I rolled backwards as I was pulling out? How close did I put those rear tires to the curb? I was doomed.

Did I mention that I really like the public transport here in London. Very easy to use, and much better than using a car. The environment, you know.

The instructor soon came, and we got started with the test. It wasn’t two minutes into the 40-minute drive through the local streets in London that he said: “You’ve been driving long?” “Yes,” I said, afraid to look at him lest I take my eyes off the road. “I have my license in the US.”

“Good,” he said. “Well, stop driving like a learner and drive like a real driver.”

My mind raced. Was this a trick? Surely he didn’t want me to honk, pull out in front of a bus, or whip out my cell phone and text my wife. I decided to give a little laugh and keep with my plan: Two hands on the wheel and head on a swivel. I was watching everything, signaling left and right, and using that handbreak like it was dispensing free M&Ms.

I wanted to trust the examiner. I wanted to believe that he really just wanted me to relax and do my best. By not worrying too much where my hands were on the steering wheel, I bet he figured I be better able to concentrate on the road. That’s a good thing, right?

Afterwards, I also realized that I was particularly nervous because I had put myself out there. I had said to others: I am going to get my driver’s license. If I didn’t, it will have meant that I failed. I’d have to come back to the office and face the questions. Admit the failure. Keep a brave face.

If I didn’t try, however, then I wouldn’t be able to drive. To take the family on that trip to the Cotswolds. Lower Slaughter is lovely in the fall.  (True name. Indeed charming.) I’d be missing out on some neat things that I really did want to experience.

Even if I could see most of them by bus.