I’m currently working on the latest piece for Another Poem to Love. Sorry for the delay, but it’s the end of the semester and I’m trying to get all that done and my “write other things to avoid the work I need to do” strategy hasn’t quite worked like it usually does. Weird. But I have one in process and it should appear relatively soon.
Back in January of 1995, I received and promptly deposited my first of many student loan checks. I was a non-traditional student, married with kids, holder of a full-time job driving a forklift at a grocery warehouse. The warehouse job is what had gotten me to enroll at Southeastern Louisiana University. I’d had a handful of minor repetitive motion injuries and when I asked the Workman’s Comp doctor if there was any special kind of exercises I could do to avoid them in the future, he said “find another line of work.”
I was still a Jehovah’s Witness too, and my whole life they’d been firmly opposed to college. “You won’t need it,” they said, “because we are in the End Times and Armageddon is going to happen any day now and you need to be focused on the worldwide preaching work,” but as fortune would have it, right around the time that my shoulder gave out again and that doctor told me to stop doing what I was doing, an article in The Watchtower slid open the higher education door a sliver, and a sliver was all I needed. I enrolled and started classes as a Chemistry major.
My first semester was, ummm, eventful. It’s pretty likely that I’ll write about a bunch of this stuff in more detail as this poem project continues since that’s what it seems like I’m doing, trying to marry memoir and poems I’m reading, but here’s the bullet point version in no particular order:
Took zoology class and discovered everything I’d been taught in the church about evolution was incorrect
Got very little sleep because I was taking 16 credit hours and still working full-time and trying to be a Witness
Discovered right during midterms that my wife was having an affair and was coming out of the closet
Stopped going to church, told my wife I wanted a divorce and started thinking about what an entirely new life might look like
There’s more. I grew a goatee. I started going to college bars which went about as well as you would expect for a mid-20’s socially-awkward about to be newly divorced with wildly inaccurate assumptions about what the people outside the church he’d been raised in were like type of person. And so on.
But the important part here is the student loans, because those things literally made it possible for me to go to and stay in college. See, that full-time job paid maybe $10 an hour, which was okay money for working in Hammond, Louisiana in 1995 but not enough money to support a family and pay tuition, and really wasn’t enough money to support myself as a newly-single person, pay tuition and pay child support.
So I took out loans, every one I could get, and for the next four years as an undergrad, I would start my semester in line to pay my tuition, get two checks for the balance over what my tuition was, and immediately sign one of those checks over to my ex-wife. Pretty much the same for my grad school experience.
So now it’s 2005. I’ve got my MFA, I’ve just done two years at Stanford as a Stegner Fellow and I have my first full-time university teaching job. I’m a lecturer at Florida Atlantic University teaching a 4/4 and making $30,000 or so a year, which is more than I’ve ever made per year in my life at the time, and which is not enough to live in south Florida, not really, so I go into economic hardship deferral until that time runs out and then forbearance and at some point in there, there’s a program that allows you to pay based on your income and also we move to Iowa because Amy gets the job she has now at Drake University. I’m making payments, but they’re not large enough to even cover the interest and if this part of the story sounds familiar that’s because there are a lot of people in similar boats.
But also sometime in there, a program called the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program comes into being where if you’re enrolled in it, and you work in particular fields—public sector, nonprofits, that sort of thing—then you can have your loans forgiven after 10 years. This program got some notoriety while Trump was President because his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (ptui!) did all she could to keep people who’d hit their ten years from actually getting the forgiveness they’d earned.
Notice I said “earned.” This wasn’t a giveaway or welfare or wealth redistribution. Working in the public sector or for nonprofits or the other kinds of places that qualify for this forgiveness plan usually don’t pay as well as the private sector does. The deal offered by the government was, you work for us or someone we say qualifies for ten years, probably making less money than you could and continue to pay on your loans for that whole time and we’ll forgive the balance, no matter how large it is.
During the pandemic, the Biden administration not only stopped what Betsy DeVos (ptui!) had started, they actually made it easier to qualify for forgiveness. For one, they counted all the months while student loan payments have been suspended whether or not you made payments toward the total. And two, they did a one-time waiver where you could reach back to employment from before the PSLF program came into being to find qualifying payments.
And look, the paperwork was complicated and nerve-wracking and made me want to die every time I opened another PDF from Mohela but I got it done and in and as of today, my student loans are forgiven.
It’s an amazing feeling. And I hope everyone who has that kind of debt gets to experience it or something close to it, and that future students don’t have to worry about it at all because we’ve created some kind of path for them to get a college degree if they want one (or more!) without going into overwhelming debt. Or even regular whelming debt. Or debt at all.
And we should also fund opportunities for training for people who aren’t interested in college. We should be offering debt-free training for plumbers and electricians and HVAC repairpeople and auto mechanics and people who cut hair and home health aides and daycare workers and you name it. Let people learn how to do things without charging them interest for it.
I feel like Chevy Chase at the end of his rant in National Lampoon Christmas Vacation. Hallelujah. Holy shit. Where’s the Tylenol? Only not Tylenol because I’m cracking open this massive bottle of Irish Whiskey I just bought at Costco and Tylenol and booze don’t mix.
And then later—soon, but later—I’ll finish the next piece for Another Poem to Love. Talk to you soon.
Congratulations! It shouldn’t have been this hard. Yes, yes, yes to everything you proposed. Our young people are indentured servants of Wall Street and our corrupt “representatives” in Congress.