“Always stay a student.”
— Frank Shamrock
The professor opened class with a simple statement.
“I assume everyone has the syllabus and all of the materials.”
Uh, I didn’t. I looked around the room and quickly ascertained that I was the only one. There was no sense in hiding.
I raised my hand to tell him. He wasn’t too annoyed. He simply said, “Open up Canvas and download it now, please.”
I said, “You got it,” but I thought, What the hell is ‘Canvas’?
I was in school for the first time in a decade and so much had changed. I’m from the era where you received everything on the first day of class. I was a dinosaur. I looked around again. Save for a few outliers, I was the old guy. Worse, I was the old guy in a technology class that didn’t know the technology.
Whereas in my previous several times on campus, laptops had first been rare, then a luxury, they were now mandatory. And like the rest of the world, everything is now online in the form of Canvas, an open online course platform that hosts all information on every class, from the syllabus to assignments to grades.
Now I was back in the classroom, a few months shy of my fortieth birthday with far more stress and responsibilities than before.
And one minute into this latest endeavor, I was already behind.
“Nothing make me sick more than somebody 40 and say they in school. Like, ‘What you doing?’ ‘Uh, I’m going to school. You’re never too young; you’re never too old.’ All bunch of sayings. ‘The older you are…!’ Shut the fuck up with your old horseshit. You’re old! Your brain don’t work! Your body don’t work! You can’t change your ethic.”
— Patrice O’Neal, Elephant in the Room [extended and uncensored version]
Going back to school was not my idea. Far from it.
It took me 54 credits to obtain my MBA and when I graduated in December, 2009, I swore I was finished with school. Sure, I went back on my word a year later to obtain a Six Sigma Green Belt, but that had basically been an independent study that didn’t take that much time. I was really, truly done.
Fast forward a decade to the early part of 2019. In that time, I had gone from university hospitals to Fortune 500 multinationals before returning to healthcare. I had also gotten married, moved to a different state, and had my second child only a few months earlier. Life could not get busier.
Or so I thought.
I was summoned to a meeting with the CEO and several other executives where he informed me that I was being promoted and would lead a brand new analytics department. I would report to the CIO with a thick dotted line to himself and dotted lines to the other execs. To help ensure my success, he wanted me to go to school for analytics.
I hoped it had just been an errant comment, but shortly after starting my new position, my new boss asked me to give her a list of several programs I found interesting to see which one I’d join. I came up with a few and had my heart set on one in particular, which would take about nine months. However, when it was discovered that my choices were all online, word came back to me that the powers that be wanted me to have the full experience.
They wanted me to actually go to school. In person. And sit in a classroom.
Jason Melon: “Wait a minute. When did you dream about going to college?”
Thornton Melon: “When I used to fall asleep in high school.”
— Keith Gordon and Rodney Dangerfield, Back to School
I enrolled in a four-course, twelve-credit program. Despite the fact that this was part of my promotion and it wasn’t my decision, I would still have to go through the normal tuition reimbursement process — and that didn’t include parking, fees, and anything else that wasn’t covered. Combine that with all I had going on already — regular day job; building a new department; two young children (ages 7 and less than 1 at the time); upkeep of a house and a yard; and so much more —and I decided one course per semester was enough, so this whole thing would take about two academic years (spring, fall; spring, fall).
After that first class when I was completely lost, I slowly became acclimated to life as a student again. It was strange being back in a classroom, particularly as one of the old guys. The age gap isn’t nearly as striking in graduate school as it is in undergrad, but it was still there and it made the normal process of trying to connect with people even more difficult, especially as it became apparent that most of the class was enrolled in the MSBA program and had known each other for some time.
Whenever I leave the house, whether to go to the office or simply get the mail, both of my kids stand at the front door waiting for me to return or waving and crying as I drive away. Life with children means trying to accomplish things while being constantly interrupted. Even a minute spent paying attention to anything else makes children go crazy and on multiple occasions I’ve had my laptop commandeered or been unable to see the screen because they’re climbing all over me. (While writing this, I’m listening to a breathless story about the Disney movie that they watched last night.)
Finding time for homework was challenging, especially as my younger daughter became a master at avoiding sleep, but while I regrettably may not have done all of the readings, I was still able to finish my assignments, often late at night after everyone was (finally) asleep.
I changed my life so that I could have dinner with my family every night, but here I was missing it one night a week — and leaving my wife solo to pull double parenting duty on her own — so I could attend class. Then there were the group projects. In business school, virtually every class requires students to break into groups and do an end-of-semester presentation that takes hours to put together, prepare, and practice.
For those in their late 20s or early 30s that are single or at least childless, spending an entire Saturday in the library or over Zoom leisurely putting together a presentation with plenty of breaks and tangents before rehearsing it over and over again is no big deal. They aren’t really missing anything.
For me, that’s an entire day that could’ve be spent on the never-ending task of keeping up a suburban household — grass cutting, weeding, and landscaping, fixing things around the house, laundry — or spending time with the kids.
School is largely designed for those that are young and don’t have all of the responsibilities of modern working parents and graduate school in particular is the playground of perfectionist students. They’ve spent nearly every year of their lives as students and feel like they’re experts at it.
I get it. I was like that too…the first few times.
But for all the downsides to aging, there is the perspective that only comes with experience. I’m old enough and have been in enough jobs in enough organizations to know that finishing with an A-minus rather than an A would not be the reason I failed to snag that dream job. My classmates did not always feel the same way.
I worked very hard and tried to be the best student, but there were times when mundane life as a parent and homeowner just got in the way. I nearly missed a nighttime group meeting because I was parenting and I was late to another because I was pressure washing our outdoor furniture and lost track of time.
COVID-19 hit midway through my second course and the school shut down, forcing us to take classes virtually. (How ironic that I chose this school for its in-person teaching but we were all forced online before I was even halfway through the program.) My kids loved sneaking into my home office and making surprise guest appearances on camera.
At the same time, work became insanely busy. While other people have been day drinking on their patios on Tuesday afternoons and working through their Netflix queues, I am the one tasked with delivering our hospital’s daily reports to the state and federal government every day — including weekends and holidays — as well as helping our executives understand the implications of what was happening in real time.
My life became defined by a simple equation: Parenting + essential worker + student = no days off. Ever.
School was obviously not my top priority. Nevertheless, I persisted.
“Whoever said we are our own worst critics never went to grad school.”
The spring semester was drawing to a close, meaning I was halfway through the program. The original plan of spreading it out over four semesters was not only for academic reasons — focusing on one course at a time — but also for financial reasons. My company’s reimbursement amount was capped at a figure that only covered two courses per calendar year so spreading it out over four semesters made sense. Otherwise, I’d be paying out of pocket for classes I was being mandated to attend.
It wasn’t the money, it was the principle.
Four courses. Four semesters. All tuition paid by my employer. That was the plan.
My plan, however, was about to change.
During a study session with the few friends I had made in the program, I discovered they were all taking the same course in the first half of the summer and they suggested I should join them. Summer classes are condensed so that a semester’s worth of work is crammed into half the time, so they aren’t ideal under normal circumstances — who wants to spend their summer doing homework? — but if COVID would be keeping me in my house anyway, why not?
My summer course began the day before the final class of the spring. It was a coding class, not my strong suit to begin with, and the professor’s video lectures were confusing and opaque. Moreover, the discussions and assignments had nothing to do with the lectures. When someone asked her about the disconnect, her response was, “Google is a great resource.”
Why was I paying for tuition? Apparently WiFi is all I needed.
One Saturday night my wife and kids went to bed early. Our first major assignment was due at midnight on Sunday and it was daunting, so I should have been doing homework, but I was exhausted from work and parenting so I watched Apocalypse Now for the first time instead. As I opened a bottle of wine and rode upriver with Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard, I was cursing my friends for convincing me to take the course. I truly didn’t know how I was going to pass this class.
I’ve watched the film a few times since then and just like we equate certain songs and smells with memories, I know that every time I see a strung out Dennis Hopper or hear Marlon Brando’s voice emerge from the darkness I will think about this program and the overall unpredictability of 2020.
Shortly into that first viewing, my phone vibrated. It was from a classmate that was inviting me to join a GroupMe chat about the class. Sometimes the universe works out in your favor.
I immediately joined, thanked the person for setting it up, and added, “For the record, Assignment 1 is kicking my ass!”
I expected to get pushback and some “Well, actually” responses about how it wasn’t really that tough. Instead, I discovered I was far from alone as the messages immediately poured in.
“LOL Glad I’m not the only one.”
“This assignment is kicking a lot of asses.”
I felt better.
The next day, I had a Zoom session with an incredibly smart young woman who really helped me understand the material. I’m not sure I could have survived without her. Both in that group chat and in some individual breakouts, we all managed to work through that assignment and the others for the duration of that class. I honestly felt guilty at first, as if I were cheating. However, throughout the semester, the professor encouraged us to work together and teach one another. Once again, the way in which I grew up — hiding your paper from your classmates, being constantly warned not to share answers — were long gone. While egregious cheating and plagiarism would still get you expelled, helping each other is encouraged, particularly in business school.
Halfway through that summer session, I was informed that the class I was planning to take in the fall — the last course of my program — was no longer being offered. I asked if it were going to be offered in the spring and was told that it was unlikely. I had two choices: wait an entire year until the following fall semester to see if maybe it were offered then or take the class in the second half of the summer.
This was not the plan.
I was hoping for a break, particularly since I was still deluged with COVID reporting requirements with no end in sight. I also didn’t want to wait an entire year to finish one class. So I signed up for the second summer session. The program that I was planning on completing over the course of twenty-one months was now condensed to twelve.
My final course began the day after my previous one ended and would consume the final eight weeks of the summer, a busy time even if the pandemic had scuttled most plans and gatherings. We still had several family parties to attend and weekend trips to make, as well as a socially distanced wedding shower to host, along with the normal weekly work of everyday life.
One of the many ways in which COVID has changed the world is in our experience and interaction with time. For me at least, the year 2020 has felt like it changed speed, first whipping through the spring season before crawling through the back half of the summer. As a result, my first summer course flew by but the second felt like it dragged on interminably despite the fact that it was a visualization course and thus more aligned with my daily work.
Although it felt like forever, the class did eventually end. Last Friday, I submitted our group project, which was my final assignment. It was fitting that the person that did the best work of my group’s final project was the woman that had been so helpful to me in my previous class — she was like a guardian angel to me this summer.
Just like that I was done.
To celebrate, we went away for a few days and though I still had to do a few hours of work every day, I managed to relax, go swimming, drink Coronas during the day and wine at night, and just decompress. A close friend had sent me a bottle of Dom Pérignon vintage 2008 for my fortieth birthday earlier in the year, but I wanted to save it for a different, even more special occasion. This became that occasion.
I popped the cork, filled some glasses, and made a toast. I took a sip and savored the feeling of being done with school.
Christopher Pierznik is never, ever going back to school again. He is also a nine-time worst-selling author. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com