Fail Gail. The epithet strikes fear in the hearts of high schoolers, yet no one seems to know her real name.
I am speaking, of course, of the infamous road test examiner at the South Yarmouth Registry of Motor Vehicles. She has been administering road tests for 15 to 20 years, estimates Geoff Leary, a driving instructor at Nauset Regional High School.
Neither Leary nor Dave Potts, Nauset’s driver education program coordinator, knows her full name. Attempts to query the RMV were unsuccessful. This reporter was put on hold for two hours, listening to a clanky Mozart piano concerto on loop. What would have been a proper investigation has become an unsolved mystery.
Nevertheless, Fail Gail is truly the gatekeeper for most young would-be drivers on Cape Cod. As of 2015, she was the only examiner at the South Yarmouth Registry. I had her twice, six years apart, almost to the day.
I took my first driving test when I was a senior in high school. I remember messing up the parallel parking, and Gail saying, “Is this parallel parking or crooked parking?” I don’t remember exactly what her final words to me were, but it was something along the lines of “You are a danger to society.”
I didn’t rush back to retake the test. I didn’t need a driver’s license as a student living in Boston or Scotland. When I returned to the Cape because of the pandemic, however, I needed one for my job at the Independent. But the South Yarmouth RMV was closed. After months of waiting, I was able to schedule a test in Plymouth.
On the day of the test, heading off Cape, I thought I would be safe from Gail, but I was wrong. She had packed up her clipboard for Plymouth. I recognized her immediately. Six years later, as if fulfilling some strange prophecy, we were face to face, or rather, mask to mask.
I was later able to confirm it by comparing my two learner’s permits. She signed the first one with her I.D. number, and the second with a large, ominous “G.” The handwriting on the dates, however, was the same.
I settled into the unfamiliar car — all road tests are currently in state vehicles — and puzzled over how to start it. I had never before driven a hybrid with a key. “You should know how to do that,” said Gail.
After I nailed my parallel parking, she immediately deflated my confidence by asking, “Why are you so nervous?” I wasn’t nervous before she asked, but now I was. “If you were a better driver, you wouldn’t be nervous,” she said. Thrown off, I tapped a cone pulling out of the parallel parking.
As I got sweeter, she got meaner. Her hand hovered over the emergency brake.
The fateful moment came when, pulling up to an intersection and starting to turn left, I carefully said, “I see there is a car coming from the left, but there is plenty of room.” She pulled the brake — an automatic fail.
Luckily, I easily passed the road test with a different examiner a month later. Still, I couldn’t shake how intimidating Fail Gail had been.
It was easy to gather other people’s Fail Gail stories. While most confirmed the accuracy of her nickname, a few were surprisingly positive. Several interviewees asked for anonymity, including one who said, “I’ve heard that she favors boys and people who come with a driving instructor instead of a parent.”
Kiah Ruml, a Nauset High graduate, said, “I was really nervous and did pretty horribly on my driving test, but right when it was over she said, ‘You definitely need some more practice, but the only reason I’m going to pass you is because I don’t want to see your face here at the RMV again.’ ”
“She did not smile once, and said everything like she was reciting a verse from the Bible,” said Bella Hay, a student at Nauset High. “I knew I messed up every time she scribbled on her clipboard. I swear the woman never looked at the road. She was constantly writing on that clipboard.” Hay said that, after she failed, she made sure to schedule her next test for a Tuesday. She had heard that was “Gail’s only day off.”
Becca Stevens, another Nauset graduate, said that when she “botched” the parallel parking, “Gail started talking me through my next steps … It was oddly comforting.” After the test, Gail gave her a lecture and handed her a pamphlet. Stevens assumed she had failed. But Gail said, “Turn it around!” It said she had passed.
If I had been able to interview Fail Gail for this story, I would have asked her why she became a road test examiner. Perhaps she believes she is cutting down on the number of accidents. The profession must be relatively dangerous. Psychologically, unkindness might not be a surprising occupational hazard.
Who knows? Perhaps if it weren’t for Fail Gail, there would be even more Massholes on the road.