From the May 2021 issue of Car and Driver.
I am, appropriately, in the car when Jose Corpas calls. Corpas is the founder and lead instructor at Champion Auto School in Brooklyn, and, rather inappropriately, I take notes against the steering wheel as we talk, which I doubt he would approve of. My meager defense is that Los Angeles traffic is pretty much at a standstill, but I do feel a bit guilty as I steer with my knee and write, “It’s a big responsibility to drive and to teach someone to drive.”
Corpas, who used to give road tests at the DMV in the ’90s, has been training beginner drivers in New York for two decades. Six years ago, he started his own driving school, Champion, one of more than a dozen in or around the Flatbush neighborhood. My friend Lily, who at age 41 has decided to get a driver’s license, chose Champion because it had the most reviews praising instructors for being kind. “I was scared to do this,” she says. “I needed someone to be kind.”
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Lily’s decision to learn to drive as an adult isn’t unusual, says Corpas, nor is her trepidation. “By the time someone is 27, if they haven’t got their license, they’re dragging their feet,” he says. “They’ve had a traumatic experience or a fear, or maybe they’ve always been apprehensive. But there’s no age that’s too late to learn. A 40-year-old with motivation picks it up just as fast as an 18-year-old, and anyone who comes in as an adult has some motivation.”
In the past year, for many people, motivation came from pandemic shutdowns. That was Lily’s prompt. She was worried about her elderly father, who lives in another state, and her two young daughters were going stir-crazy. “I think COVID was an epiphany moment for a lot of people,” Corpas says. “They realized they wanted the ability to get out of town without depending on anyone else.” He says he’s seen more adults come in since COVID restrictions have lessened. Across the Brooklyn Bridge from Champion, Wilma and Gerry Valenzuela, founders of the Professional Driving School of the Americas, have noticed a similar trend. “I think we all want a breath of fresh air and a change of scenery,” Wilma says.
For many adults, it’s not just a change of scenery that spurs them to learn to drive, but a major life change. “I get guys who have been in prison since they were young men,” Corpas says. “This is their first chance to get a license. I taught a woman who had just gotten divorced—her husband hadn’t allowed her to drive. I teach people who are coming here from other countries, starting all over.” So far his oldest student was a 62-year-old recent widow whose husband had done the driving. “She took about 30 lessons. We would go to the grocery store, run her errands as part of the lesson. As she got more confident, she would take the highway. We would visit her husband in the cemetery. It’s very gratifying to do this. When you teach someone to drive, you’re really giving them something.”
So what took Lily so long? “I thought I was genetically incapable of driving because my mother got in so many accidents when I was a kid,” she says. “She said we weren’t built for it. Then, when I took the written test, I saw all these questions about what happens when you mix medications and alcohol and get behind the wheel. I was like, Oh! That makes sense. My mom wouldn’t have passed that question.”
Helping students get over their internalized fears is as much a part of a driving instructor’s job as teaching them when to start signaling ahead of a turn. Lily says her lessons have been almost like therapy. “One of the first things the instructor told me, after ‘Gear, steer, and clear,’ was to let the car be a place where you just stay in your body and think about driving,” she says. “When I waved someone in and it wasn’t their turn, he said, ‘You don’t have to make everyone like you. You just have to take your space and move forward.’ He was talking about driving, but it’s pretty good advice for anyone tackling a new challenge.”
This summer, road trip. Lily’s driving.
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