What I learned at UCLA, and after

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Selfie (with background added in Photoshop) 4–30–19

Does anyone here remember Mike Warren? He was the starting point guard who helped lead UCLA to the 1968 NCAA national championship. After which he played suave Bobby Hill on Hill Street Blues and appeared in movies and TV shows including Soul Food, Living Single, and Drive, He Said. Today, notes his Wikipedia bio, he’s the father-in-law of actress Jessica Alba.

He was in my English class. One day the professor asked me to stay for a minute after class. “Did you show Mike Warren your papers?” he asked. Uh-oh. My answer must have been: “Um, yes. Mike invited me to have coffee at the student union and asked to borrow and look at my writing assignments. He told me that Coach Wooden works the players really hard and doesn’t give them time to do their homework.”

The professor warned me not to show anyone my papers again. Apparently Mike copied them word for word. Not the smartest move by someone known for smart moves.

I’m remembering all this after reading a beautifully written story about the current (and already fading-from-headlines) college admission scandal.

Parents paying thousands and thousands of dollars so their kids could get into college? My parents did not want me to go to college.

My mom — I’m not letting her rest in peace by writing this — was adamant in her belief that girls should say home with their families until they got married. And my dad wasn’t going to spend a penny on my college education.

My dad didn’t want to spend a penny he didn’t have to. In those days, UCLA was tuition-free. But there was an $80.50 per quarter student health fee. He wasn’t going to spend even that. He told me I could go to El Camino Junior College, which was 100 percent free. And El Camino was closer to where we lived, Inglewood, so the gas (then about 29 cents a gallon) would cost less. And I would be reimbursing my share of someone else’s 29 cents because I didn’t have a driver’s license or a car. Dad’s loudly proclaimed belief was that girls who don’t live at home (A) don’t love their parents and (B) will get too involved with boys and flunk out.

I took the SAT on my own. I got accepted at UCLA. Over the summer I worked at a local city park (and tried to integrate the swimming pool, but that’s another story) and sewed the nice dresses I thought I’d need. I lived at home during my freshman year, getting rides with two other girls who’d been in my Inglewood High School class. Every day, as I simmered in traffic on the 405 in the backseat of somebody else’s car, it became clearer and clearer: I did not want to live at home. I did not want to meet in a commuter parking lot every afternoon and be back in time for supper with Mom and Dad and my two little brothers. I wanted to live on campus. I met lots of students who adored their parents but did not live at home. My figure-drawing class assignment to draw a life-size nude self-portrait was not progressing well in my old bedroom.

I negotiated with the financial aid office and got myself enough of a scholarship to pay the student health fee and the dorm fee (about $1000 for the year). To buy books and art supplies and clothes, I got a work-study job going around Westwood Village selling and designing ads for the Daily Bruin. Luckily, the styles were changing from wool mini-dresses to hippie Indian-print tunics and bell-bottom jeans. A few outfits from the sale racks at the shops sufficed. Besides, the shopkeepers liked my logo designs and fashion drawings and I sold a lot of ads. Sam Flax gave me a discount on art supplies. A generous friend down the hall in the dorm took me to the DMV and let me take the driving test in her car. I got my license and bought a used car for $300.

My parents didn’t speak to me for the next three years. I did get involved with boys (Mike Warren was not one of them) but did not flunk out. I got straight A’s. I sent my parents my grade cards in the mail.

Everybody at UCLA worked hard. And studied hard. We were serious about academics. We cared about the substance and originality of the papers we wrote. It was a time of social equality and marching for social justice and ending the Vietnam War. I took more classes in African studies than art. The rich kids from Bel Air dirtied up their MG convertibles and wore the same jeans and Che Guevara jackets as everybody else. Many of my talented fellow students are still friends. A few were scions of prominent families. Most were children of regular, middle-class citizens. Some were immigrants or children of immigrants, immigrants from Mexico and China and all over the globe, who were able to get a first-class education because California had the best system of free public higher education in the world. On a certain level (maybe a fantasy?) we all considered ourselves equal.

By junior year, most of us had our own apartments ($95 a month was doable in Santa Monica and West L.A.) We visited each other all the time, and I learned to cook and entertain and listen to classical music, the blues and jazz. Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie and Buffy Ste Marie played UCLA, and everybody went to the concerts at Royce Hall. And to the basketball games.

As I write this, I wonder, why am I telling you this story? Let me take another sip of coffee and think about it.

First of all, USC, the apparent recipient of most of the recent parent finagling and bribing, was our crosstown rival. That was where the not-as-smart, spoiled rich kids went. Nobody I knew wanted to be caught dead there.

But it’s more a story about learning to be independent and free. Among my mother’s many and oft-repeated arguments: If I went “away” to college, I wouldn’t be able to do my laundry. I would come back, shamefaced, recognizing how much I needed her. So, after my first few weeks in the dorm, I took my dirty clothes down the hall to the room with the washing machines and dryers, put in my quarters, and voilá, laundry done. She didn’t think I could to do THAT? Wow.

In truth, my mother escaped the Holocaust by getting from Nazi-occupied Austria to England on a domestic servant visa, alone. Her medical-school education and dreams of becoming a doctor were quashed. She was separated from her boyfriend and from everyone in her family, some of whom didn’t survive. She was traumatized during the Blitz, the bombings of London. Finally married and safe in California, she wanted to keep me close by. It took me years, but her seemingly irrational mindset is finally understandable. We made up later, after I moved to New York. It was a bigger separation, but one that brought us closer together. That’s another story too.

My American-born father was a child of the Great Depression. Every penny counted. His instinct was to get everything cheaper — because you’ll never know when the stock market will crash again and everyone will lose their jobs and all their savings, and your family’s delicatessen store will have to close because nobody has money for a hot pastrami on rye. To support his family, Dad quit being a freelance violinist and got a blue-collar job at an aircraft assembly plant. He took his bonuses in stock certificates, which he kept in his dresser drawer, and which Mom and I found after he died. Today, I’m getting dividends and future capital gains from the one-third of the stock I inherited.

And what else? I learned to be resourceful. I learned to negotiate. I learned to sell stuff. I learned to write and to make ads and logos, which I still do for a living. I learned to sew. I recently attended a wedding in a dress I designed and made, and that everybody loved.

What more could one ask for?

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My career is designing and writing about design. Here, I can write about lots of things. My short fiction attempts to capture and evoke past moments in time.

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