Back to School
(February 2004)

After the dotcom crash hit the San Francisco Bay area particularly hard in 2002, I could not find employment. Extreme measures were needed to rectify my situation; I rationalized that the best way to secure a better future was through an MBA. True, I had already obtained a master's degree in environmental management 11 years earlier, but this time around I meant business. That August, I headed down to Los Angeles to begin my new life as a student… once again. But things are vastly different this time around; I am much more mature and paying much more money. So, as I approach the midpoint of my final semester at USC, I bring to you a recent day in my life that represents my esteemed academic journey as an older, more serious scholar.

The other day I awoke to a cold winter morning in LA. I longed to stay in my warm bed, but my morning MBA class demanded my attendance–not just physically, but intellectually. I tried to encourage myself, "For THIS degree, I'm actually going to attend classes so that I can get the utmost higher education." As I stepped outside, I prepared myself for the onslaught of cold and zipped my jacket up to my chin. True, I wouldn't likely need an ice scraper for my windshield, but after all, I had become acclimated to southern California weather; never before had 60 degrees felt so cold.

The commute downtown to school from my house in Santa Monica takes 25-35 minutes, depending upon the severity of morning rush-hour traffic. Recognizing this unpredictability, I pulled out of my driveway at my usual time for my 10:00 class, 9:40. The first minute of the commute was always the most suspenseful. All would soon revealed at the freeway entrance ramp, which presaged the magnitude of my tardiness. On some days, I cruised onto The 10 freeway without waiting, which boded well for the rest of the race to class. This was not one of those days. Redemption seemed unlikely as I impatiently watched the back of the nearly Hummer-sized SUV waiting in front of me. A devil on my shoulder whispered into my ear that I only needed to jump into the carpool lane to solve my problem. Conflicted, I considered this act unsavory but potentially justifiable. A Ford Explorer pulled up behind me and effectively made my decision for me, as I was now boxed in. Trying to avoid claustrophobia, I focused on the eye-level bumpersticker in front of me. "I'm changing the climate! Ask me how." I averted my eyes to watch a BMW with no passengers go speeding past us in the car pool lane. My patience just barely held, but faired better than that of the eco-challenged driver in front of me. She pulled into the carpool lane and sped off, leaving me with a front-row view of a Hummer's rear that obscured the sky.

Miraculously, once I entered the freeway, I found myself cruising at freeway speed, 80 miles-per-hour. I savored the luxury of the precious LA highway moment; I knew that the evening rush-hour would begin in just over four hours. On this beautiful morning, the smog granted just a hint of the snow-capped mountains to the East. This was my lucky day; at the rate I was traveling, I knew that I was destined to arrive in time for class. I could not contain my excitement from myself.

Yesirree, Rob, I'm flying today! Looks like I'm not going to be tardy! Just call me Mr. Punctuality! I can see it now. I'll bust through the classroom door and swagger towards my seat. After the initial shock, my fellow classmates will stand and applaud as I stroll down the aisle and acknowledge their praise with a subtle nod of my head. The professor will respect my feat with a salute. Indeed, recognizing my punctuality potential, the school will honor me with a lifetime achievement punctuality award and a full scholarship. Employers will be beating on my door. I'll …
"SCREEEEEeeeeeech!" I was awakened from my reverie when I nearly rear-ended the car in front of me. Traffic had stopped. The bumper-to-bumper stop-and-go continued for a couple of more minutes with no sign of abating. My dreams of a punctuality award, scholarship, and job offers had become road kill. Someone had some explaining to do. "Well, no doubt, there must be a horrific accident ahead." In my head I could see the multi-car wreckage, the school-bus, the screaming kids, and the black billowing smoke cloud. The tragedy would be a horrific sight, no doubt. Yet, I knew that I would feel compelled to slowdown and watch; after all, I had already paid my dues waiting. Suddenly, without explanation, we're moving again… no carnage, twisted metal, or even sirens… worse yet, no punctuality award.

Soon, I was off the highway and driving on a secondary street through South Central LA towards the USC campus. The area might not be as nice as some college towns, for example, Cambridge. But many students chose to live within walking distance to campus and enjoy the convenience and diversity of inner-city life with its bilingual taco shops, auto shops, used car lots, liquor stores, bail bonds, and "Everything's Not Worth a $1" stores.

I had almost reached the campus; yet, a mere 50 yards from the entrance to the parking garage, I was impeded by an unending stream of students meandering across the crosswalk into the campus. I looked impatiently at my watch: 9:59. "How could they be so irresponsible going to their 10:00 classes this late? They're going to make me late!" An endless parade of skateboarders, beach-cruiser-bicyclers, and coeds sporting flip-flops juggled cell phones and coffees. The gloves, scarves, and mucklucks at the rear of the mass identified these stragglers as native Southern Californians. At last they had finally passed, but my stoplight had turned red. I invoked the 2-cars-can-turn-left-after-the-red-light-in-LA rule and raced into the entrance of the parking garage.

I began climbing the seven levels of the parking garage, looking for a coveted parking spot. My $500 parking pass allowed this possibility, but did not guarantee it. I passed phalanxes of new Mercedes, BMWs, Infinitis, Lexi, and lowly VWs that assaulted me with their alarms. "How do the other students afford these?" But as soon as I had asked myself this question, I realized that they cost about the same as just one year's tuition. On the 6th floor I squeezed into a "Compact Car" parking space between a mid-sized BMW that straddled the white line and an SUV that extended beyond the "No SUVs" sign freshly painted on the pavement beneath it. After repositioning my car several times, I finally parked it, opened the door the few available inches, and forced myself through the narrow opening after removing my backpack. I looked at my watch: 10:03.

I began speed walking across the campus towards the business school, without taking the time to admire the campus. True, I was not missing much; architectural aesthetics seemed a design afterthought. The utilitarian pink-brick buildings seemed better suited for a county government than a major university. This stark theme also extended to the vegetation, or lack thereof. Concrete and red-brick sidewalks crisscrossed the tidy patches of grass. Relief from the sun was more likely to be found in the shade of a building than one of the few eucalyptus trees, palm trees, or diminutive sweet gums. However, students were known to occasionally go for dips in one of the many waterfountains scattered about the campus.

10:05–there simply wasn't time to notice the young coeds frolicking in front of the freshman dorm. I navigated the sea of exposed midriffs, trying to remain focused on my academic goals. "I must walk quickly." Copious exposed young flesh surrounded me. "I must face forward. No distractions. Keep walking. Must resist." Greek letters danced tauntingly on buttocks. I tried not to look, but resistance was futile. I resorted to logic. "When I was her age, she wasn't even born." I turned my head away from the dorm towards the large reflecting pool, where even more young coeds sat at the edge, dangling their feet into the water. Their conversations were Sirens' songs, beckoning me to swim with them. I could almost swear that I saw mermaid's tails, but I pushed gallantly onward.

10:08–I snuck into the back of the classroom, but I was out of luck. The back row was full, as were the rows immediately in front of it. The first three rows of the classroom were empty; I would need to be the intrepid pioneer and sit in one of them. I discretely slid into a seat in the third row. Almost all of the students behind me had their laptops out–not to take notes, but to "instant message" friends. Maybe I am just old-fashioned, but I would have nothing to do with this reprehensible activity; I opened my laptop for its proper classroom use, e-mail. At least I felt somewhat better about my behavior as each of five students drifted into class after me.

After I had caught up on my e-mail, I noticed that my watch had stopped. I studied the second hand intently, but there was no movement. Yep, it had definitely died. "Tick." I was wrong. I looked up at the overhead and thought that I must have been in the wrong class. While, I could recognize an "=" sign, I could not make sense of all the greek letters. Besides, they weren't as entertaining as those on the co-eds. I listened to the professor drone on, "blah, blah, blah… blah, blah, blah… will be on the midterm next week." "Midterm next week!?" This was certainly a wake-up call, I decided to take action immediately; I was not going to delay buying my textbooks any longer.

Walking past the café and the student center, I recognized the bookstore by the haphazard army of beach-cruisers standing parked in front of the entrance; apparently, everyone else had also waited to buy textbooks. I picked my way through the bicycles, to fight the masses inside. After I had waited in line for 15 minutes, the cashier delivered the bad news, "that will be $647.95."

Me: "647.95 for textbooks?"

Cashier: "Yes."

Me: "When?"

Cashier: "When?"

Me: "You said that WILL be $647.95. Can I pay at that time?


Me: "Don't you at least offer a student discount on textbooks?"


As I exited the bookstore, I realized that even more students had arrived and left their bikes blocking every conceivable route beyond the sidewalk. I spied an escape route through the maze of bicycles and followed it to the right and then to the left and back to the right before hitting a dead-end at a powder blue cruiser with a book basket. I doubled back, attempting to retrace my tortuous path, but got lost amid a forest of white-walled balloon tires. Someone walked towards me from another alleyway formed by a black cruiser with chrome fenders and a pink cruiser perfectly suited for a life-sized Malibu Barbie… beyond them, an exit! I hastened my pace and all but sprinted the final yards to my hard fought freedom, only to have a pony-tailed sorority girl block my exit with her white tasseled handlebars.

Equipped with my textbooks, I now felt like a true scholar. I breathed deeply and felt the oxygen flowing to my brain. I was on a roll and knew that I hadn't a moment to lose. I needed to get to the library for some serious studying before I lost my momentum. As I began walking there, I reminded myself that somewhat drastic measures were needed to make amends for my academic transgressions. I mentally prepared myself for penance, a marathon study session without breaks, at least 30 or 40 minutes. "No, not enough! I gotta think big! Hmmm… the library is open 24 hours; realistically I can survive at least a few days without eating. OK, I guess I'll settle for studying until my class tomorrow morning. Besides, that way I can guarantee that I'll receive the Punctuality Award."

En route to my destination, I passed a large placard, a waiver warning that any person passing the sign consented to being filmed for a movie. It was not an altogether unusual occurrence on the campus. I guess it was to be expected so close to Hollywood, at one of the top film schools in the country. Actors pretending to be students walked around in heavy winter coats, hats, scarves, and mittens. Some actually pretended to shiver as they stood bundled from the nearly 80-degree cold. Apparently, this was supposed to be winter scene, set somewhere other than LA. I noticed that the camera was strategically placed to avoid picking up the palm trees and the fully leaved sycamore trees. I suppose that I could have circumvented the set, but I was on a mission to get to the library. Perhaps the TV audience would not wouldnotice that I was wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals.

The LIBRARY, embodiment of erudition. I could already feel myself getting smarter as I walked proudly up the steps. Even though my cell phone had been set to only vibrate, I turned it off so that I would not disturb my fellow academicians. I didn't dare jeopardize any academic breakthroughs that might advance humanity's progress. The entrance sign for the study area admonished that conversations and cell phones were not allowed. However, it gave no warning of the gas leak; tt was the only logical explanation for the number of people asleep. The only people awake were those talking, both in person and on cell phones. Given the number of cell phones ringing, I was amazed at the number of students that could sleep. My amazement ceased once I spent a few minutes attempting to read the first few pages of my new finance textbook. I convinced myself that a swim in the campus pool would awaken me for more productive studying.

As I walked towards the center of campus, I approached bevies of sorority girls. The greek letters hugging buttocks distinguished each sorority; however, this branding was unnecessary, as membership was predicated upon demanding physical attributes. On the north side of the waterfountain, stood the pony-tailed-blondes, talking to one another on their cell phones. Their nemeses, the curly-haired blondes, drank Diet Cokes on the south side of the waterfountain. The free-flowing straight-haired blondes by the sycamore tree did not deign to unnaturally perm their hair so. Of course, none of the aforementioned sororities are natural blondes, a fact underscored by the outcast brunette sorority. They disdainfully smoked cigarettes next to the café by the bookstore. Still, everyone's jealousy was reserved foremost for the sorority of natural blondes, who blithely sipped lattes in the sunshine next to the benches. I could almost hear the envious thoughts, "how could God give them naturally blonde hair, while forcing me to use bleach? Life is SO unfair!" The girls in the lowlier sororities glared upon the privileged members of the natural blondes–both of them.

When a student pays more than $30K a year for tuition, I guess it's only fair that they can expect to receive some non-academic amenities. The USC recreation center functions largely as an exclusive country club, offering exercise rooms and outdoor heated swimming pools (not that pools need to be heated in LA). Naturally, I make great efforts to ensure that I'm getting my money's worth. While towel service is offered for an additional fee, I have passed on this luxury. Instead, I'm roughing it, no towel service, nor drinks with little parasols for this guy. After swimming a few laps, I grabbed my backpack and headed over to the grassy area next to the pool to dutifully study my new textbooks. Unfortunately, the only available lounge chair was nestled amidst a bevy of bikini wearing girls. Despite these distractions, I dropped back the headrest to get comfortable for reading and managed to drift off to sleep. My dreams of frozen fruit libations and palm-frond-fanning maidens were interrupted by a girl shaking her long hair dry. Still, I realized that I couldn't really complain; half of the country was digging out of snow. As I drifted back asleep, I wondered whether a golf course would be installed soon.

As I strolled back towards the parking garage, I reflected upon my extensive accomplishments that day. I didn't really mind spending so much money to buy such an esteemed education. Just then, two university policemen went cruising past me on new electric scooters; something akin to the chariot race scene with Charlton Heston in Ben Hur. At first, I naively thought that they must be racing to the donut shop, but I caught myself with a realization that I was subscribing to an unfair stereotype. "Now wait a minute. These guys might not even like donuts; after all, they are just university cops, not real cops." I congratulated myself for my astute analytical capabilities. Clearly, I was putting my hard-earned MBA skills to work. I might not have won the Punctuality Award, but I knew that I had joined the ranks of the academic elite. No doubt, employers would soon be beating on my door.

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