Editor’s Eye: Quandary

When quitting school was the easiest path, it wasn't the right one.

I came so close to dropping out of school. As a junior, I had a job in my field—at the Los Angeles Times, no less—and I saw no point in finishing my degree. I was already on my way.

Well, maybe that’s overstating it. I was hired by the Times, but not for my dream job as a sportswriter covering the Dodgers. No, I was a copy boy earning $368 a week. My job: fetching pizza for the editors, changing their flat tires, returning overdue library books, smuggling wine into the building, answering the phone, sending faxes (in our washing machine-sized state-of-the-art fax machine back then)—and, oh yeah, pitching in with a little reporting or writing when the reporters or copy desk needed it. That’s what I lived for.

My parents (chemistry professor and elementary school teacher) weren’t thrilled about my plan to quit school. But they kept mum and let me make up my own mind. Money was not a factor in my thinking; attending a state school in California, my tuition 40 years ago was $60 a quarter. I covered that with my earnings from my previous part-time job (which paid an impressive $3.77 an hour) at a local city recreation department. I just couldn’t stand the idea of being held back when I was on the verge of becoming Roger Angell or Tom Wolfe, two of my heroes.

Another factor was that back then, at least in journalism, college degrees weren’t always seen as essential. The sports editor who hired me didn’t have a degree. Heck, Watergate hero Carl Bernstein didn’t have one, either. They looked like pretty good role models when I was 22.

But one thing bugged me—I didn’t want to be a quitter. There were a few times in my life when I dug in my heels and stubbornly refused to give in. Such as when I was in 10th grade and I rebelled against my mother by refusing to cut my hair. Or the time I was driving to Arizona to visit a friend. I recalled that once, the Arizona agricultural border control agents confiscated all the fruit I brought to snack on. That wasn’t going to happen again. So before the border, I exited the freeway and defiantly ate a grapefruit, two oranges and two apples and then I smugly drove into Arizona. Twenty minutes later, I had to pull over along a dusty, deserted stretch of I-10 out in the middle of nowhere with a massive stomachache.

One night, when I was returning to the Times office with pizza for everyone else, it hit me: my parents made great sacrifices for me and my brother to go to college in the first place. And I remembered that I actually loved school, so maybe spending one more year to get my degree wasn’t such a bad idea. Forty years later, I am glad I wasn’t too full of myself to realize that.