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Stuck under a glass ceiling, I learned to shift for myself

I bought a 1965 Chevy Impala the minute the Commonwealth of Massachusetts gave me a driver's license. I pulled on the gearshift, lowered the red arrow from P to D, cranked open the window, and burned rubber down my small-town street. The wind blew my hair, and I inhaled my freedom.

Then I passed a boy in a pickup with four-on-the-column. How did he ease into first gear without lurching forward? Intuit when to shift from third to fourth? I slowed to a stop and slammed my head against my first glass ceiling.

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Now I understood how the pre-Title IX girls on our field hockey team must have felt. Their uniforms were hand-me-down gym suits, their goalposts antiques. Only football players had their names stitched into newly minted jerseys. And only boys operated manual transmissions.

When I left our small town for a Boston college, I met a woman who drove like a guy. Trish had a white '67 Camaro convertible with four-on-the-floor. We got an apartment atop a steep Boston hill.

On winter nights when I should have been cramming for finals, Trish and I cruised to late-night Cambridge coffeehouses, watching the road lights twinkle on the Charles River. When we steered home, I marveled at Trish's ability to downshift into second and gun up our street through New England sleet without skidding.

Trish and I each had 10-year-old sisters whom we thought should be playmates. One spring we planned a weekend at her parents' house, my little sister in tow. We wondered what to do with our Saturday.

"Teach me to drive a standard," I said.

"Yes!" Trish answered. We retracted the convertible's top, buckled the girls in the back, headed to the empty high school parking lot, and traded seats.

"Clutch; first, second, third, fourth," Trish pointed. I pushed in the clutch, shifted into first, lowered the emergency brake. This was easier than I thought.

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"Gently let off of the clutch as you apply pressure to the gas."

The car bucked like a rodeo horse.

"Gently," Trish repeated, giggling.

I slammed on the gas pedal, threw the transmission into second, then skidded to a stop so I could practice first gear again. Buck, skid, stop. Buck, skid, stop. One of the little girls began to moan. I ignored her and continued, pitching and hurdling around the lot. The 10-year-olds clutched each other's' hands and screamed like passengers on a roller coaster.

I kept practicing while Trish ignored the damage I was probably doing to her transmission. Thirty minutes later, she proclaimed me ready for the road. Stalling and grinding along the elm-lined suburban streets, I delivered us to her parents' house. I never even reached third gear.

Over the next couple of years, whenever a friend with a standard drove me somewhere, I begged to take the wheel. I mastered highway on-ramps and winding country roads. I experimented with shifters on the column and sticks between bucket seats. I dated a series of guys who drove rusting Triumphs and Opels with modern Synchromesh transmissions because I liked motoring the little speedsters along rural highways west of the city. Eventually I finished college and acquired a stick shift of my own.

My women friends waved goodbye to their 30s and gracefully swapped their stick shifts for automatics. Not me. Sure, stop-and-go traffic was tough. But I liked the control shifting gave me on the road, the economy of the earthier transmission.

Then I realized that I had hung onto that gearshift not because a manual represented Steve Madden platforms while an automatic meant Talbots slingbacks. Driving a stick, I'd shattered my first glass ceiling. Mastering the clutch, I tasted equality with boys for the first time. Cranking the engine's rpms, I expanded on a road that had asked girls to contract. Yanking the stick, I satisfied my urge to swagger. Downshifting at a tight corner, I trusted I could manage the ribbon of road ahead.

I believed the standard gave me weight and presence, power and possibility. But I came to understand that it is the driver, not the transmission, who controls her own highway.

Now a mature station wagon nestles in my driveway. Pointing the arrow from P to D, I remember letting out a clutch for the first time and feeling myself grow larger. I kick my three-inch-high sandals into the back seat, pout my lips in the rear-view, and slowly cruise down my suburban street.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor