Monday, March 25, 2013

Velva Jean Learns To Drive

Book Review: Velva Jean Learns To Drive by Jennifer Niven

Velva Jean is a poor young girl growing up in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1930's. She has a beautiful voice and dreams that one day she will make it to Nashville to sing on stage at Grand Ole Opry decked out in rhinestones. Velva Jean temporarily forgets her dream and marries at age 16. A couple of years later she inherits an old truck. It sits in her yard many months before she rekindles her dream and teaches herself to drive. I was so completely wrapped up in Velva Jean's story that I was sad to see it end. The good news is that there is a sequal about learning to fly and another one after that (both of which are on the hold list for me at the library). I understand that book four will be out later this year.

Velva Jean's world doesn't have many cars in it. The people are isolated in the mountains and very few come in or out of them. There weren't many cars and even fewer drivers. Her sister was so afraid of automotive technology that she refused to ever get into a car and would never think of driving one.

Driving was considered a man's activity. A stereotype though long gone from the United States, is tightly adhered to in other parts of the world. I am reminded of the fight currently going on for women drivers in Saudi Arabia. Interestingly enough, religion plays a huge role in Velva Jean's husband forbidding her to drive just as it does for the Saudi women.

Driving equates to freedom and independence just about everywhere and it was no different for Velva Jean. While she understood that she needed to have a teacher when learning to drive, she also knew that she would never have that luxury. So she took her destiny into her own hands.

The books Velva Jean studied contained numerous lists of things you had to do while driving. They reminded me of the ones that modern day driver's ed teachers use. For example, when getting in the car there are hundreds if not thousands of acronyms in place to help you remember to put the key in the ignition, adjust your seat, adjust your mirrors, get the car in gear, release the emergency brake and get down the road. There are more to help you lane change. More to help you scan the road, drive in reverse and park the car. Each teacher has their favorites and there's great debate in whose are better and why. While building habits in new drivers is important, memorizing a bunch of lists is not. Hence, most of my students get out of my car only memorizing the lane changing procedure.

Velva Jean's brain was so overwhelmed with the endless lists in her book that if it weren't for her raw determination to learn, she would have quit immediately. She closed the books and started the truck to see if all hell would break loose like they wrote would happen. It didn't. She stalled the car. A lot. She gave herself small goals, like drive around the house once, then 5 times, then 10 times to measure her success.

Her method for figuring out the clutch was to read a little, try a bit and then read some more. Building skills incrementally prepares the brain to receive more insight for the next round of practice. And there's no substitute for experience.

Not only did Velva Jean's story captivate me on a personal level, but I also appreciated her incremental method of learning how to drive.

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