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October 30, 2007

You're Not the Only One Who Used to Watch Speed Racer

Save Yourself: A Semester-Long Exercise in Perspective
By Liz Polizzi

A bad back, poor eyesight, bad posture, and psychological malfunctions of varying orders of magnitude. These are the physical manifestations of the rigors of law school. But if you see a law student with an actual impact-related physical injury, it can mean only one thing: this is a law student who does something besides eat, sleep, and study on the weekend.

Thus, I am proud to announce that last weekend this intrepid reporter sustained her very first actual sprained ankle (as opposed to the kind you fake in grade school to get out of gym class), in order to present you, dear readers, with one of the many (albeit elusive) “joys of not-law school.” Now, when someone asks me why I limp, I enjoy the distinct pleasure of responding, “Motorcycle accident,” and then basking in their astonished stares.

You see, there’s this class you can take. You don’t have to own a motorcycle. You don’t have to know how any of the levers and knobs work (I didn’t). And in just four days, you too can have a genuine certified motorcycle operator’s endorsement added to your Michigan driver’s license, authorizing you to operate any two- or three-wheeled vehicle with a gasoline engine bigger than 50cc. At that point, you can go out and begin to learn to actually ride a motorcycle. In that way, it’s much like law school.

When choosing a motorcycle class, you have two options: pay $325 to take the class offered at your neighborhood Harley Davidson dealership, or pay $25 to take the state-subsidized version of the same class at your local community college. In either case, the instructor is state-certified, there is one instructor per six students, and the class ends with a skills test that you must pass in order to get your motorcycle endorsement. The difference is primarily in the scheduling: the Harley Davidson version is more intensive, with less time waiting around for other groups to use the range. Also, since motorcycling has been steadily gaining in popularity in the past few years, especially in these days of high gas prices and environmental consciousness, there is a considerably longer waitlist for the $25 state-subsidized class.

“But,” you may be thinking, “I am a law student. Aren’t law students, like lawyers, inherently risk-averse?” Perhaps they are, but taking early steps to mitigate the risk-aversion characteristic of your lawyerly personality is no less important than taking early steps to remind yourself to carve out little islands of fun in between oceans of billable hours – if you don’t start now, you’ll never learn.

The class itself is fun and a little scary – just the thing to shake you from your due process doldrums. First, you read a book and learn about what all the parts of the bike are called and what they do, along with some abstract techniques for maneuvering the bike (which make little sense at that point, if you’ve never been on a motorcycle before, but come in handy later). Then, you journey to a fenced-off parking lot and mount a bike already scarred from the travails of the students who came before.

Sometimes, you dump the bike. This sounds much scarier than it is – I dumped mine three times and only sustained one minor injury. My personal theory is that if you’re under five foot ten or so, you’re going to dump the bike when you’re first starting out, just based on the fact that the slightest loss of balance is fatal for those who lack the leverage to regain equilibrium through sheer brute strength. But as the old biker adage goes, there are two types of motorcyclists: those who’ve dumped their bikes and those who will. The good news is that for a beginner, most of these mishaps happen at very slow speeds (because the motorcycle has a natural tendency to stay upright when traveling in a straight line at higher speeds), and therefore the damage is usually limited in scope to your pride and occasionally some added scuffing on the already beat-up bike.

And when, at the end of the second day of riding, you find yourself zooming around the 1/8-mile track in a competent counterclockwise fashion, stopping and starting at will, and traveling at speeds approaching 12 miles per hour, you feel the sense of accomplishment that a mid-June visit to Wolverine Access can never provide. Your passing grade on the skills test means more than your relative position among a hundred of your peers. It means you are free – ready to hit the open road a la Easy Rider, ready to escape bad guys like Trinity in The Matrix ... or at the very least, ready to putt-putt around your own neighborhood a few dozen more times, before finally attaining enough confidence to tackle Packard Road.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should admit that I am really not that good at riding a motorcycle even now, twenty-plus hours and three-hundred-plus dollars later. But at least now I know what all the controls do and have sustained some pretty painful but informative lessons regarding three very important ways to avoid dumping one’s bike.

Cost: $325 if you do it at the Harley Davidson dealership; $25 if you do it at Washtenaw Community College
Time Commitment: ~30 hours at Washtenaw Community College; ~20 hours at the Harley dealership
Efficacy*: 85%
Conclusion: Nothing makes you feel less like a law student than donning a motorcycle helmet and taking a whirl around a paved enclosure. On the other hand, this is not the sort of activity that helps reduce stress – and unlike law school, in this context your life really does depend on you not screwing up. But, then, it’s all about perspective, right?

* Success at transporting the law-sodden mind to a kinder, gentler place.