My driver’s ed teacher's life lesson in confidence

My friend in the passenger seat was watching with me. “It’s an impossible (parking) space,” he said. “Too small.” I accepted the challenge.

Karen Norris/Staff

I was driving in downtown Bangor, Maine, stalking the elusive parking space, when there, just ahead of me, and directly in front of the store I wished to visit, was a lovely spot – an enviable spot. Problem was, someone was already trying to claim it. And so I slowed, stopped, and hovered. I watched as the other guy made several attempts to parallel-park in that inviting space. But after three tries he gave up and drove off.

My friend in the passenger seat was watching with me. “It’s an impossible space,” he said. “Too small.”

I accepted the challenge. “Watch me,” I told him, and he gazed at me with a mixture of doubt and admiration. As I made my approach he cautioned, “You’ll never do it.”

I should explain that, although I live in Maine, I acquired my parallel parking chops in New Jersey, a legendary farrago of traffic. If one can parallel-park on a busy Jersey street, with other drivers breathing down one’s neck and leaning on their horns, then one can parallel-park anywhere.

So how did I learn to parallel-park in the first place? Two words: Mr. Knoblauch. He was my driver’s ed teacher in my junior year of high school. Tall and friendly, and with a carefree “How ya doin’?” manner, Mr. Knoblauch was a live-and-let-live kind of guy, someone who’d laugh along with you if you played a practical joke on him. But man oh man, could he parallel-park. Legendary.

I recall six or seven of us juniors out in the school parking lot as Mr. Knoblauch, beaming and affable, described his system. It had to do with things like angle, landmarks, and how the driver turned his head and eyeballed the front of the car framing the back of the space. 

“Do what I tell ya,” said Mr. Knoblauch, “and you’ll never have a worry in the world. You’ll be perfect every time.”

We watched as the master got into the Dodge Dart, lined up the vehicle along the traffic cones that marked the front and back of the space, and with the practiced ease of a man slipping his foot into a comfortable shoe, inserted the Dart in one fluid movement. It was beautiful.

Then it was my turn. I got into the driver’s seat with Mr. Knoblauch riding shotgun. I had never parallel-parked before. My palms were so sweaty that they squeaked when I grabbed the wheel. Mr. Knoblauch sensed my apprehension. “Just relax,” he said. “Do what I told you and you’ll do fine.”

I glanced out the window at my classmates, who were already readying their broadsides should I fail. But there was no going back. I pulled my rear bumper into position in front of the forward cone, took note of my landmarks, and hit the gas. Too much! The car lurched and I creamed the rear cone. Disaster.

My so-called friends scoffed. I was mortified. The vehicle had stalled. But Mr. Knoblauch, acquainted with the sensibilities of 17-year-olds, encouraged me. 

“It happens to the best of us,” he said. “Now take a breath, and do it again.”

I did. Over and over. And on the sixth attempt – success! Practice was the key, and to this day I haven’t forgotten the Knoblauch method.

So what about the beautiful, inviting parking space on that Bangor street – the one dubbed “impossible” by my skeptical friend? In truth, it did look impossible, but my self-respect was at stake. I owed it to an esteemed teacher to give it my best shot. And so I lined up my landmarks, spun the wheel, tapped the gas ...

“You’re not gonna make it!”

“Shh. Yes I am.”

And I did. Cleanly. Perfectly.

Thank you, Mr. Knoblauch, wherever you are.


Breaking down the Knoblauch Way

These are directions to parallel-park on the right side of the street between two parked cars. For the left side, reverse the instructions. 

1. Pull up parallel to the lead vehicle until your rear bumpers align. 

2. Slowly back up about 2 feet. 

3. Keeping a hand on the steering wheel, twist around so that you’re looking rearward. Spin the wheel hard to the right as you continue to slowly back up, aligning the bottom center of your rear window with the passenger-side headlight of the rear parked vehicle. 

4. Straighten the wheel and continue to back up slowly, continuing to draw an imaginary line between the bottom middle of your rear window and that passenger-side headlight until your front end clears the rear end of the front parked vehicle. 

5. Spin the wheel to the left and keep moving to straighten out your car and put it cleanly in the space. Perform any minor adjustments needed to make you, and Mr. Knoblauch, proud of a job well done.

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