Chapter 7: Going back to Cali, Cali, Cali

We met other young married, minority couples in university family housing.  Most of them had children.  The couples that did not have children in the beginning, were pregnant before long.  They made welcome company on our pursuit of the Huxtable delusion.  Mario was at UW Medical School when his wife, Linda, began law school at UW Law.  Sara was close to finishing her accounting program while her husband, Matt, and I were both taking classes towards medical school.

I thrived at the University and started to believe that graduation was possible. All the while, Casey continued to kick my ass, capable of studying at home on the couch with the kids asleep next to her while I had to trek off to the library to study.  She made the “work” of education look easy, and she had the GPA to prove it.  She was sitting on something like a 3.93 GPA when she scheduled her Law School Admissions Test (LSAT).

Imagine the possibilities.  We did.  Undergraduates with her GPA and a good LSAT score attended the top dogs: Georgetown, UCLA, Stanford, and entertained the possibilities of Columbia or Harvard.  Such was the nature of her list when she made her selections on the LSAT Common Application.  We paid good money to have official LSAT scores sent to some of these schools.  Casey chose one safety school, the University of Washington School of Law, and marched with jubilant naiveté to sit for her first LSAT exam.

 

The Chemistry Building, Bagley Hall, sits directly in front of the iconic Drumheller Fountain.  On a clear day, a student entering or exiting Bagley Hall can look southeast to view the splendor of Mt. Rainier.  General Chemistry is required for most science degrees at the University, particularly medical school. Dr. Zoller, one of the most prestigious faculty members in the chemistry department taught it in a classroom that sat no fewer than 300 students.

I emerged from the massive classroom, spilling into the hallway along with 200 others  when I caught sight of Casey.  She stood to one side of the hallway searching frantically for my face.  She caught sight of me only after I located her, excused myself from my classmates, and walked towards her.  In fact, I had time to see that she clutched an official-looking envelope in her hand, her LSAT scores.  I even had a brief moment to celebrate in my mind the eminent achievement of her lifelong dream.  I did.  I imagined, if only for a fleeting moment, the arrival of an acceptance letter to Columbia Law School.

The moment passed.

In the moment she caught sight of me, no more than 10 feet away, I saw the jumbo-sized tears well up in her eyes.  She extended the LSAT envelope to reveal her scores: the 14th percentile, scores so low they effectively nullified her success in the classroom in the eyes of a law school admissions staff. Casey was devastated; convinced she had disappointed me beyond repair and crushed by the increasing probability that her life-long dream was quickly coming to an end.

UW Law School remained our best bet.  Casey was graduating with honors from the undergraduate school despite being a student and parent of two young children.  It made for a great application essay.  The rejection letters from the big dogs were swift, leaving us to joke that her application was clearly in the bottom third of the applicant piles, in the “hell-to-the-no” pile.  But, the rest of the rejections arrived shortly thereafter and the UW was no exception.

I have nothing to say about this time in our life, I completely blocked it all out of my memory.    

It was a failure when I was bounced from U of O and when Casey fled from the Midwest.  But this felt different.  This was rejection, no doubt. But, something about it did not fuel the self-deprecating fires of failure.  We knew the difference immediately.  When I failed at Oregon, I lost all my fathers’ faith in me.  I lost all faith in myself, if there was ever any there from the beginning.  When Casey fled Missouri, she left everything; her tuition, her education, even her belongings behind.  There were no second chances, no possibilities of undoing the damage, no redemption.

gradThis was different. It took a few weeks to sort through the emotional aftermath of that rejection-filled spring. But before long, we noticed a few truths:  We survived the transition of moving from California to Washington. My hatred for the grocery business was replaced by a hope for academic redemption. Casey was graduating from college.

If these things were true (and they were), then perhaps there are other truths as well?  Perhaps this thing we are doing, this Huxtable Dance, is possible?  There is always hope.  The truth about graduate school applications is that there is always next year.  I learned that much from my dad’s experience, and even though he was accepted on his first try, he fully expected that medical school admissions would require more than one attempt.

Our path was obvious; Casey would re-enroll at the UW, postpone graduation (even though she had already walked in the ceremony), study for and retake the LSAT, and reapply for law school for the following year.  It was painful and humbling, for Casey most of all.  But, again, it did not feel like a failure so much as a “Punt”, a loss of forward progress for now that holds the promise of a future fight.

We added a rule to our list of life/parenting philosophies: established favorites such as “by any means necessary” and “be above reproach” were joined by a new one: “Your ten minutes of being upset are up.  Now, what are you going to do about it?”

The University welcomed Casey back with open arms and before long she was working toward her double major but lacking the same enthusiasm she showed at the outset. It was hard to imagine how a degree in American Ethnic Studies with a minor in Political Science would be of much use in any context other than as a prelude to law school.

There were lessons learned from Casey’s first law school admissions process.  Mistakes were made in that first go around that we did not know we were making.  We surrendered to the naiveté that we had overcome so much already, that life beyond the University mirrored the security of the campus, that the next five years of raising our family would be easier than the first five. It was time for a change of approach.

We had no idea if anything we tried would work.  We had no additional information to consider. Our change in approach was nothing more than the measured next possible move in the chess match of our lives.  But, we were committed to not making the same mistakes in our next match.

Our most obvious mistake was that we grossly devalued the LSAT in the first year.   At the time, Casey had a full course load at the University, prioritized both her regular schoolwork and time with family over studying for the LSAT.  We operated under the misconception that her success in the UW classrooms would prove sufficient evidence of her potential to succeed in law school.

We would not make the same mistake twice.  This time, Casey had the presence of mind to enroll in an LSAT prep course.  We borrowed money from the Office of Minority Affairs to pay for it. She shifted her focus to studying for the LSAT, deprioritizing her classes and taking practice test after another.  She poured over written samples, broke down questions and answers according to the prescribed strategies and reconstructed her own responses to reflect the testing doctrine. She worked on her timing for each section and participated in three or four dress rehearsals at the prep center.  She refueled her motivating flame every time she hit a wall, saw little improvement between a particular set of questions, or even thought about slacking off, simply by thinking of a promise she made to herself on the day Alexes was born:  One day, Alexes would look up at her and ask, “Mom, what did you want to be when you grew up?”  And for Casey there could only ever be one response to her beloved child, “A lawyer.”

She sat for her second formal LSAT and raised her score enough to be competitive.  Through it all, she still managed to get better grades at the University than I ever did.

Another mistake we made was that we did not recognize the bureaucracy of the application process itself.  There was no slow mulling-over law school admission’s books, no detailed analysis of the numbers of applications received by any particular school, no pondering of acceptance rates, no methodical presentation of other relevant admissions data, like average LSAT scores of the admitted.

Instead, we scanned the books and circled options like we were picking out gift options from the Toys R Us Christmas Special Edition.  We poured over the catalog and could “see” ourselves attending the schools on her list.  It was too late when we finally saw the catalog for what it was. The catalog of Law School Admissions reveals realities, not dreams.  The catalog might have been a roadmap to a dream if Casey’s parents had come across it when she was six years old, assuming they would have known what to do with the information.  At this stage of the game, it was nothing more than a list of criteria designed to identify what details kept Casey out of their program.

We would not make the mistake a second time.

It was February, 1997, when we received our first acceptance letter.  The University of Wisconsin, Madison, was the first to say yes.  It was early in the admissions notification season when the Badgers accepted us and foreshadowed the acceptance letters that were soon to follow.

I will always hold a special place in my heart for University of Wisconsin because it gave me Professor Walter, who graduated from there, it gave me my first acceptance to law school, and it gave Seattle, Russell Wilson (Go HAWKS!) 

Mercifully, we received Casey’s acceptance to U of Wisconsin weeks before we got her second rejection letter from the University of Washington.  Apparently, the fact that Casey graduated with honors with a student-husband and two toddlers was not enough of an extenuating circumstance to overcome her original LSAT score.

It was 12 in all, including Loyola Law School.  We enjoyed a passing feeling of redemption when Casey was finally offered the spot at Loyola even if it came with a summer bridge requirement for admission.  Casey harbored a lot of hurt feelings that she had missed her opportunity to attend Loyola Marymount Undergrad immediately after high school because her parents could not overcome the fiscal burden.

I enjoyed a similar, albeit brief, feeling of redemption when I applied, and was readmitted to the University of Oregon half a decade after I was Academically Disqualified at the impressionable age of 19.  When I submitted the paperwork to the University of Oregon, I never had any intention of returning there.  Rather, my motive was that I did not want to apply to medical school with an “Academic Disqualification” on my transcripts.  In some small way, the re-admittance eased my initial failure.

Enough of all those bad vibrations.  Casey was accepted by the likes of the UW at Madison.  And unlike the letter from Loyola that made Casey feel inadequate, the UW Madison acceptance letter arrived with a generous financial aid package that included a sizeable merit scholarship, validating her hard work.  As if that was not enough, the university is a public school, with public school tuitions and access to public funding the likes of which we were accustomed to at the University of Washington.  And, graduates from the UW Madison School of Law were automatically accepted to the Wisconsin State Bar.

Wisconsin presented our entire young family with some terrific options.  They had already set us up with student-family housing, meaning that Alexes and Mikey would continue to grow up on a university campus with all the big –time sports events we enjoyed in Seattle.  My acceptance as a transfer student applied all of my Molecular and Cell Biology credits towards my degree.  I had about 5 more quarters for my undergrad degree at Washington and an equal number to finish at Wisconsin.  I might actually graduate as soon as 1998, just 10 years after leaving high school.

What’s more, like Washington, Wisconsin boasted a top-notched law school on the same campus as a top-notched medical school, a convenient logistical detail in our “Huxtabolian” pursuit.  It also did not hurt that the city of Madison, Wisconsin, was recently voted one of the top 10 best places to live in the United States.

The Wisconsin Law School package was arguably perfect.  So naturally, we decided it was best to accept admittance to Loyola.  That’s right, after all we did to leave, we were going, going, back, back to Cali, Cali…

  • It was warmer in Los Angeles.
  • Grandparents were there as a back-up support system while Casey attended class. (We also felt guilty they were missing out on seeing the kids grow up)
  • Sandra (aka Sandy, Nana), Casey’s mom, was in SoCal, and her and Casey were super close.
  • Acceptance to Loyola represented the quasi-fulfillment of her high school dream.
  • Loyola was a well-respected law school with famous alums (Some of the lawyers on O.J. Simpsons’ defense team graduated from Loyola.)
  • I could expect a smooth transition to any one of the numerous SoCal universities where I could complete my degree in the same 5-quarter time line, and there are several medical school options. (or so I thought)

We claim our arguments for going home to SoCal were sound, but to this day, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, still holds a special place in our hearts.  (Go Badgers!)

Believe it or not, all these decisions were discussed to death.  Often it seemed our decisions (stupid ones to the outside world) were pulled out of our ass.  But the scene of our debates was always the same.  Mike and I would feed the kids lunch, pack them up into our tiny little car, and drive east of Redmond to Fall City or Carnation.  The kids would pass out in the back seat as we planned out their future.  Coming from LA, the thought of driving out in the country (literally working farms with cows) only 20-30 miles from downtown Seattle seemed incredible to Mike and I.  We loved it.  It is where we found our center, driving peacefully along Novelty Hill Road. 

Mikey and Alexes knew the drill and never fought the nap that was destined during these drives.  We felt such immense pressure to make good decisions for the kids that met our educational goals.  It was tough.  On a seemingly routine drive, we got into the car; strapped the kids into their car seats.  When Mike asked me “where we should drive?” a little voice out of the back seat said, “Where the wind takes us”.  Mikey, the tiny toddler just shy of his third birthday said the most meaningful words ever uttered in our family history.

 

Before we moved south, Linda, the UW Law student married to Mario, the concurrent UW medical student were filing for divorce, each consumed by their own need to study endlessly in the two programs.  Sara, the up-and-coming-CPA and her husband Matt, my pre-med buddy at the UW, were also having difficulties that ultimately ended their marriage.  Both divorces left a young son in their wake, and only 2 out of the four (the wives, in case you were wondering) ever successfully completing their academic goals.

Their unhappy endings scared the crap out of Casey and I. We were shaken to the core as their pursuit of the Huxtable delusion dissolved in front of our eyes.

Casey started law school at almost the same time that Alexes started kindergarten. It was September of 1997.  We moved into an affordable apartment in Highland Park, down the hill from the house I grew up in, the house my father bought the year he graduated from medical school, the house my parents live in to this day. Our apartment was conveniently located near the freeway with direct access to Loyola Law School and close enough to my parents that Alexes could attend Mt. Washington Elementary, the same school where I met Casey’s first cousin as a kindergartener some two decades earlier.

MtWashjpgWhen the time came for school to start, I held Alexes’ little hand in mine and escorted her to meet her teacher at Mt. Washington elementary school where, for the sake of nostalgia, Casey took a picture of us walking in front of the sign to highlight the irony of the moment.

That same week, I also held Casey’s hand and escorted her to Family Orientation night at Loyola Law.  We sat together in a lecture hall while a professor proceeded to take all in attendance through a typical day in a law school classroom.  He gave us guests a hypothetical scenario, engaged us to expand on the issues using the Socratic method, and skillfully guided our responses to craft his next questions, until we were able to construct a plausible rationale to his initial question in our own minds, and only then inviting us to share thoughts with the rest of the class.

The drive home from that orientation left us thoroughly impressed by the Professor, by his presentation, by the contemporary art design and the facilities of the law school grounds, and by the seriousness of it all.  There were never any delusions about the seriousness of being a One L, as first year law students are commonly known.  Casey was familiar with the rumors of how challenging the first year of law school could be, the need to study countless hours to keep up with the deluge of material, the hyper-competiveness between fellow law students, but being there in person, that was real.

We immediately understood the subliminal message of that Family Orientation.  The point was to communicate to families what the law students already knew, it was time to get serious, time to say goodbye to Casey, and time to say hello to Cassandra.  The change was marked by a concurrent change in names.  Cassandra Lopez de Arriaga was born to Jorge and Sandra some 29 years earlier, but she became known as “Casey” as her tiny voice and her joyous personality emerged in grammar school.  When she ran for student government positions in middle school and high school, she was famous for starting every speech the same way:

“Hi”, with that cheesy grin plastered across her face, “my name is Cassandra Maria Lopez de Arriaga Torres Fernandez Monge, but you can call me “Casey”.  She won every time. Friends in grammar school became friends in middle school that in turn became friends in high school, and the nickname “Casey” transitioned with her as she danced her way through high school to become the confident cheerleader I met as a pimply tenth grader.

“Casey” was a fitting name for the cheerleader turned choreographer and coach in the years beyond high school.  The name was perfectly suited to reflect her casual, carefree approach to life, her marriage at age 23, (at four months pregnant), her willingness to relocate with her young family to the Pacific Northwest without jobs or a place to live, her consideration of a career in primary childcare, and even her return to undergraduate at the University of Washington, where she still found time amidst her studies and family to become one of the founding members of Gamma Alpha Omega, the first Latina sorority on the UW campus.

It was time to get serious. We did not tumble, bumble, and stumble haphazardly upon law school, like we did so many of those early decisions.  Rather, law school was the entry level of a childhood dream, a promise made to a newborn baby girl, the execution of specific academic decisions, carried out over 3 years, that would impact a young family. It was the tangible removal of a hurdle that we knew, even then, could change the trajectory of our future. In our minds, the name “Casey” made it all too easy for professors and peers to regard her as little more than the glorified cosmetologist her high school counselor had predicted.

On my first day of law school, professors asked that we introduce ourselves by our “legal name”.  It was day one of law school and I was already “Cassandra”.  Professors demanded Cassandra, only accepted Cassandra, and whether I was ready or not, that was now my name.  Even Mike started calling me Cassandra to intentionally mark the transition. 

Goodbye Casey.  Hello Cassandra. To this day, we can tell immediately tell how long we have known any particular person by whether they habitually refer to her as ”Casey” or “Cassandra”.

 

 

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