Out of the Country

The cost of higher education in the United States is utterly iniquitous.

As I discussed in the post Barbie Shoes (November 13, 2019), I’ve always enjoyed reading personal essays on-line. Although the Lifestyle section that once collected the best of such compositions has long since vanished, I still discover personal essays here and there, reading them with as much pleasure and interest—or disdain–as ever.

A year or so ago I stumbled across one such essay discussing the problems inherent in student loans. The author, a young woman who had endured years of financial problems when her loans were called in prematurely, described in detail her path to fiscal ruin.

I felt genuine compassion for her plight. The cost of higher education in the United States is utterly iniquitous. Even with scholarships, students (and sometimes their parents) are subjected to crippling financial burdens from the loans needed to finance a college education. At higher levels of education, Master’s degrees and PhDs, scholarships are not even available. The costs are simply insupportable.

As the young woman pointed out, too, there are no financial advisors available to these very young (usually, 17- and 18-year-old) borrowers. Short of a wise family member, there is no one to say to them, “Is the return you’re going to get on this investment truly worth it? Do you know how many years—years when you will be wanting, perhaps, to marry, start a family, buy a home—how many of those years will be spent simply repaying these loans?”

So I read her essay in a state of empathy. She wrote of having achieved her goal of acceptance at the college of her dreams, and starting her educational journey there, only to experience difficulties. As a young Black woman in a mostly-White campus, she mentioned enduring frequent microaggressions that left her emotionally depleted. I couldn’t really imagine how that would feel, but I had once endured relentless, vicious bullying at a new school as a teenager; while not truly analogous, I felt that experience at least gave me a slight basis for commiseration. I’d also witnessed the difficult adjustment experienced by several young people of my acquaintance to campus life. Being subjected to racist remarks would undoubtedly compound the usual adjustment difficulties.

The young woman finally experienced what she described as a mental health crisis, one severe enough that she dropped out of college. Again, I commiserated. I’d endured multiple mental health crises in my life, stumbling through the first one, complete with suicidal ideation, when I was barely 14. The experience was unspeakably dreadful. I was sorry that she capitulated, but I acknowledged her misery.

Dropping out, though, resulted in her student loans being immediately called in. Payments were due. Now she carried a financial liability, while ill-equipped to find a job at a salary high enough to keep up with the payments. She was well and truly caught in the net of student loan hell.

So she defaulted—and began a years-long process of legal woes as she tried to manage the fiscal blows to her credit and future.

But it was at this point in her essay that I encountered the sentence which led me to question everything the young woman had written to this point: She stated that she missed a court date for a hearing on her debt due to the fact that she was out of the country.

Wait. What?

Out of the country? Why? For work? I reread the sentence; it specifically did not say, “for work”. Out of the country. Why? Was this trip a gift? A honeymoon? Did she need to get to someone who was ill, even dying? Again, things not said. And when? Court dates are generally set fairly far in advance; how is it she was unaware of the schedule? And where? Canada or Mexico? Did she simply drive across a nearby border? Or did she fly somewhere? Take a cruise? Never having been able to afford such travel myself, I was of the notion that international plane fare or cruise packages were expensive. Even passports weren’t cheap. Was she staying with someone for free, with many meals provided–or using hotels, paying car rental, eating restaurant meals? Student loan payments in default, a salary that purportedly didn’t cover making those self-same loan payments, but she could afford a trip to another country? Why wasn’t the probably-not-inconsiderable sum for this little jaunt spent on payments toward her legally-acquired loans?

I stumbled through the rest of her essay–complaints about the court system, excessive loan payments, and “rigged” financial systems–in a very different frame of mind.

Personal responsibility. Accountability. Determination. The determination that might have declared, “I don’t care what those racist fools throw at me, by God, I’ll show them! They’re not going to keep me from my education!” The sort of responsibility that, in my own circumstances, kept me slogging away in demeaning employment situations, enduring sexual harassment and gender pay gaps, in order to support my child, no matter what the cost to my mental well-being. The personal responsibility and strength of character to be totally accountable for one’s own decisions and behavior.

My compassion evaporating, I reread the young woman’s entire essay with a very different eye.

I still feel that the cost of a college education in the U.S. is iniquitous. Student loans are a terrible form of usury.

But Ms. Out-of-the-Country definitely contributed to her own problems.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Barbie Shoes” as mentioned above, which you can find in the Archives from November 13, 2019.

What the Very Best Memories Are Built On

§  Pleasant childhood memories come from the most unexpected sources.  §

While talking with a friend not long ago, something I said triggered a pleasant childhood memory for her.  Reminiscing, she told me that her father had been a salesman, on the road sometimes for a week or longer.   Each time he returned from a sales trip, he brought small, inexpensive gifts to her and her brother—things that cost him little or nothing, but simply delighted his small children.  My friend particularly remembered the little paper parasols from fancy drinks (what little girl doesn’t just love those silly things?)

But time passed and she and her brother grew older.  Cheap little mementos no longer sufficed to entertain them, and Dad probably didn’t want to spend his hard-won cash on more expensive keepsakes.  Finally, her Dad warned the two of them, “Don’t ask me what I brought you, or you won’t get anything!”  Of course, my then-young friend didn’t ask…but the parade of little souvenir gifts stopped, anyway.  Such is life as we grow up. But even though there were no more small presents to be had, my friend never forgot the pleasure and excitement of the special things her Dad had brought home from his travels to his young  daughter.

My friend’s memories triggered recollections of my own, things I hadn’t thought about in years.  When my brothers and I were small, I remembered, Dad would often come home on Friday nights bearing a handful of comic books for us.  Probably he had stopped to fuel up the car, and in that era, an attendant would have run out to pump the gas, clean the windshield, check the oil…  In any case, my Dad had time to run inside and grab a pack of his cigarettes, and then a handful of comic books for his children.  But he always chose the good comic books—not just Superman and Wonder Woman, Adam Strange, or The Legion of Superheroes, but many issues of the Illustrated Classics series; even comics that described fascinating times and events in history, such as the rise of the Viking culture.  I loved these beautifully illustrated “serious” comic books, and read them over and over.  Years later, I would be astonished to meet in actual book form the  stories that I’d enjoyed so much in my comic books, when I finally discovered H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I remember, too, that when we had moved to the then-unpopulated far south suburbs of Indianapolis, there were nearly no restaurants in our little corner of the universe—or so it seemed to my disappointed 10-year-old-self.  There were certainly no movie theaters, and even the local grocery store was a far slog from the house. But there was a Dog ‘n Suds drive-in a couple of miles from our new home.  The Friday night comic book fest changed to the thrilling adventure of sitting in the car, devouring a delicious meal of hot dogs and fries and root beer after Dad got home from work.  (More than half a century later, I still love hot dogs and root beer, and be damned to how unhealthy a meal it is!)

Vacations, too, held memories for me that had little or nothing to do with the actual trips.  Of a childhood vacation to meet all of Mom’s relatives in Kentucky, I recall nothing at all about the people to whom I was introduced  except for one memorable incident with my distant cousins, when they and my older brother and I were chased madly down a country lane by an enraged sow after we’d gotten too close to her piglets.

And the long three-week trek my parents took us on one summer covering most of the American southwest, seeing supposedly-memorable scenery and monuments, still does not bear a candle in my memory to the year that we spent our summer vacation trekking from one State park to another, hiking the trails and feeding the wildlife, riding in surreys and marching cautiously across swaying suspension bridges, picnicking and stopping at country restaurants to eat huge platters of fried chicken served family-style, topped off by rainbow sherbet for dessert.

The most precious memories that children carry away from their childhood may well have nothing at all to do with what we, their parents, hope to have created for them.  The simplest of events and seemingly-inconsequential occurrences, totally forgotten by the adults in their lives, stand out limned in a brilliant halo of shining light in the mind of each once-child.  It is those incidents which become the bricks and mortar from which children build their most precious memories. As the adults in their lives, all we  can do is to provide them scraps of building material, and watch in wonder what they create from that offering.

Happy Almost-Birthday to you, Morrigan Lynn!
I hope the memories that we, your family, are helping you build will be glorious.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Dance At My Daughter’s Wedding”, which can be found in the Archives from May 11, 2018.