How I Learned to Drive (Or, A Case Against Grit)

This week, while most of my co-workers and students are on vacation (relaxing on the sun-drenched beaches of the Dominican Republic or Hawaii or Texas), I will be taking my road test. Since the day I passed the written exam for my permit, almost a decade ago, I have lived in fear of the New York City road test. Statistically, my chances of passing on the first attempt aren't great. In 2012, only 46% of drivers were able to pass the basic road test. While some in the comments section of The Daily News would ascribe this to the fact that "New Yorkers don't know how to drive," I would make the counterargument that the road test here is just insanely difficult. There's not a single lesson where I don't have to swerve around double-parked cars on narrow streets, navigate a minefield of pedestrians crossing when they're not supposed to, and calm my rattled nerves when half a dozen impatient drivers are honking at me in the middle of rush hour. Trying to drive in New York City would make anyone feel a twinge of nausea. So I decided that I could live without my driver's license, especially since I live in a veritable public transportation utopia.

However, when I went to the post office to renew my passport, they told me that my permit was no longer considered a valid form of identification. I needed to either get my driver's license or go to the DMV and fill out an application for a permanent ID card. Forget that. If I'm just going to end up standing around the DMV anyways, I might as well take the road test and get my license. So I signed up for a package of ten lessons at a driving school in Queens and braced myself for the inevitable failure ahead.

A bit of background: I have driven before. I learned how to drive on the Upper West Side soon after graduating college. My first time behind the wheel of a car, the instructor spoke words designed to instill terror in the most stalwart of students: "Okay, now turn left onto Broadway." About two years later, I purchased a car with my roommate and drove to and from work every day (with him sitting in the passenger seat as the designated "licensed driver"). So I'm probably more prepared than most to take the road test. What's holding me back right now is that I'm terrified of failure.

I'm sure that I'll write more about failure at a later date (and how trying to avoid it holds students, especially female students, back from success). But right now, I want to tell you about this morning. After a restless night of dreaming about driving maneuvers, I woke up at 5:30 AM (on a Sunday!) with a stress-induced cold clogging my nasal passages, ready to drag myself onto the subway to Queens. However, since my driving instructor had not confirmed my lesson, I texted and waited for him to say: "Yes! The receptionist remembered to block off the time slot, and you have a lesson this morning!" So I sent the message, bundled up for the negative degree windchill outside, and waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, ten minutes before my scheduled appointment, my instructor texted back: "Yes. You have a lesson at 7 AM." Which, of course, I now wouldn't be able to attend since the lesson was in Queens, and I live in Brooklyn.

My first response was panic. This was supposed to be the morning that I practiced switching lanes! And I'd spent the past three days screwing up parallel parking! And do you know how many errors can result in an AUTOMATIC FAIL? MY ROAD TEST IS ON TUESDAY! HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME? I curled up underneath my comforter and cried at my abysmal luck. After I'd sniffled myself into exhaustion, I began questioning why the cosmos might have allowed this travesty to occur. As if the pile of snotty Kleenex next to my bed and my two hours of uninterrupted sleep weren't enough.

This is a case against grit.

Education Reformers worship at the altar of grit. According to them, grit can put every economically-disadvantaged student on a one-way path to Harvard. (For the record, I've rarely heard teachers at affluent suburban [read: predominantly white] high schools talk about grit.) Grit can be taught. You just have to set up situations in which your students can (and probably will) fail and then teach them how to overcome that adversity. How can they power through any obstacles that may arise? How can they find the mental/emotional willpower to continue struggling? I thought about grit a lot during my last driving lesson, while I was trying to parallel park next to a small tank disguised as an SUV. This was the fifth time during the lesson that my front tires had bumped into the curb -- an automatic fail on the road test (despite the fact that literally every licensed driver I know regularly taps the curb while parallel parking). I was following every instruction given to me; I was asking specific questions and checking my own understanding; I was taking my time so that I could precisely follow every step in the procedure. I was being a model driving student -- but I just kept messing up.

Eventually, I started making stupid mistakes. Not signaling before pulling in next to a car. Forgetting to shift gears from reverse into drive. Turning the wheel more than two times to the right to straighten up. All of the steps were engraved into my memory, so why did I keep messing them up? Because I was struggling so hard that I was beginning to shut down. And this, my friends, is the other side of grit. I have literally been making myself sick over the New York City road test. I close my eyes and can only see the blinking arrow of my turn signal. I replay my greatest hits over and over again in my mind: Triangle not opening? Turn the wheel one more time to the left. Still not opening? Turn right and drive forward. Try again. Fifteen points off for excessive maneuvering. BAM. FAILED.

The truth is that missing my driving lesson was probably the best thing that could have happened to me today. Because sometimes, you need to take a step back from whatever you're learning. You need that mental break; you need to take some time to let the knowledge sink in. If we see a student struggling, instead of attacking the situation with a YOU NEED TO MASTER THIS NOW mentality, maybe we should accept that learning takes time. And sometimes, "time" doesn't look like more practice problems; sometimes, "time" looks like thirty minutes in front of an XBox or hanging out with friends instead. In Finland, the country with the leading education system in the world, students get fifteen minutes "off" each hour for socializing and recreation.

Maybe we need to give our students a little more leeway in regards to when they master objectives. Maybe taking some time away from learning is one of the best (and most underutilized) methods that we have for facilitating student achievement. I know that we're up against some brutal odds (like a 46% pass rate on the New York City road test), but instead of making ourselves sick over the possibility of failure, maybe we need to take a step back and recognize that, even if we fail this time, we can always try again later.

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