My driving test examiner scribbled furiously on his clipboard as the back wheel of the car collided with the kerb. Desperately trying to steady my trembling foot on the clutch, I completed the turn-in-the-road manoeuvre and continued down a narrow lane, the sun blinding against the windscreen. But as I merged with the next road, he lunged forward to grab the wheel, shouting, “You didn’t check your blind spots!” and swerved us out of the way of an oncoming Ford Focus. Back at the test centre, staring at those red marks on my scoresheet, I felt sick as the words “You’ve failed” left his mouth.
On the bus home, I thought back to my dreams of a summer driving to gigs, Maroon 5 blaring, a mini dreamcatcher hanging from my rear-view mirror. I couldn’t believe that six months of studying the Highway Code, 30-odd lessons, and spending more time parallel parking than seeing my friends had resulted in failure.
Walking through the front door, seeing Mum waiting with a bottle of Champagne, I burst into tears. I know now that messing up a driving test is hardly a disaster. But to me, at 17, failure was not an option. I was brought up to think that graft was a sure-fire route to success, and my two older sisters, who passed first time with just two minor errors each, were shining examples of that. I worked tirelessly at school, with ten A* GCSEs and a University of Cambridge application to show for it. But that day in July 2004 left me full of self-doubt and panic: “What if I never pass my test?”; “What if I mess up my A-levels?”; “What if I never succeed at anything?”
I spent the next few days totally defeated, embarrassed to face my mates. But on the fourth day of ignoring their messages, my friend Nicola decided to take action. My phone flashed with a text: “I lied. I passed on my second test, not my first,” she confessed. I felt a wave of relief and comfort. I wasn’t alone. It gave me the push I needed to get back in the driver’s seat.
Turns out, I needed a lot more than a push to actually pass, though. During my second test, I clocked up 16 minors, just one over the ‘pass’ threshold. Third time round, I couldn’t pull off an emergency stop. Thankfully, it wasn’t a “real emergency”, the examiner had sighed. At my fourth, I stopped on a busy road to let a pedestrian cross. Each failure, each bus ride home, each text to Mum to say I hadn’t passed was disheartening. But with every setback, there also came a sense of determination to improve and, most importantly, to keep trying.
It was 12 months on from that disastrous first test when the examiner finally said I’d passed, on my fifth try. I couldn’t believe it at first, waiting for her to add a ‘-teen’ to my ‘seven’ minors. But as it sank in, I flung my arms around her, then jumped out of the car before she changed her mind.
After becoming so accustomed to hearing about my mistakes, there was no greater feeling than knowing that my efforts were finally enough. It had been such a long, frustrating road, but success felt so sweet. Now, 13 years later, I’m glad it took me so long to pass my driving test, because it showed me that there’s no shame in not nailing everything you do.
The real test is learning from it, and not being defeated. Yes, my life has been full of successes – passing my journalism master’s, buying my first home, meeting my husband. But failures – the Cambridge rejection, the embarrassing job interviews, the break-ups – are part of the deal, too. And I’m OK with that. Because, at 30, I’ve learnt that my setbacks have made me resilient, hardworking and grateful. I’m a combination of my triumphs and failures. I wouldn’t be the same without them.
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