Caroline in the Delta

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 07 2012

$$ MONEY $$

Arrival in Michigan happened at nine pm, throwing my last bad habit out the window and fervently texting family and friends as I cruised down 94. It was remotely terrifying, driving 76 mph even, after these two years with 65 mph speed limits. I’m missing a hubcap; my car is covered in something sticky from the tree I park under in Arkansas; something is leaking from the bottom, and everything feels unfamiliar.

Philadelphia and New York were calming, they were afternoons pacing sidewalks and talking about school with distance. Buying drinks for friends and sleeping on whatever available couch was closest. Chicago, though, happened after the somewhat upsetting and self-induced worthlessness of the pre-AP conference hosted by Laying the Foundation. Chicago felt heavy. Really heavy.

It might be the relative distance I’m getting to home (next stop: the city I grew up in). Might be that the aunt I’m staying with is the closest adult female to me now that my mother is gone. Might be the looming three year anniversary of her death. Might be looking at my bank, loan, and credit card accounts closely as the summer closes out. Might be summer closing out. Might be that two years after graduating from a university in this city, I no longer know the bars and streets and students on every block. I don’t have a community here. I don’t have any safety beyond the comforting house my aunt tirelessly works to maintain.

This morning I tried to drive to the coffee shop I always go to, and I found myself in the exact opposite direction. When I found it, I simultaneously opened the door and threw my phone onto the ground, something I do every so often. This time, though, I picked it up shattered. Inside, I found out a friend dropped out of the design program I graduated from because of “family and financial reasons.”

Finally working, I managed to get enough of a draft of our ‘sixth grade handbook’ ready to e-mail out with some hesitation. I have a feeling that now that I’ve sent it it will be taken as carved in granite and not treated like the living document I wrote it as. This likely will happen by my own fault (laziness) just as much as anyone else. I wrote an email to our vice principal about all the field trips we want to take (self-nixing the well-intentioned prison visit we wanted to take to scare the incoming sixth graders into behaving properly– what we were thinking, I don’t know, but I don’t agree with myself anymore).

And then I finished all that, missed my personal deadline to make it to the bank, and had the chance to read this article about the economy in the United States from a human level. Now I want to heave large objects things across the room.

I’m one who laughs off money and class warfare. I do fine! I can afford my rent and fully own my ’98 Camry! Missing hubcap be damned, it drove me to Michigan, didn’t it? I still have a chunk of life insurance hiding in the bank. My student loans will be completely paid off by September first. My sandals are the only clothing I’m wearing that came from Walmart.

Impressive, right?

But what does that say if I deliberately went to a generic public university in which I had the most scholarships, was an RA for two years for free room and board, at one point worked four jobs, and didn’t become a car owner until I graduated? Was that smart?

I can’t help but get angry when I read about the student loan crisis– how many people can’t afford college or can’t afford their life after. I’m angry because:

  1. I deliberately went to an inexpensive in-state school, applied for every scholarship I found, and didn’t own a car to avoid debt. I ignored University of Michigan’s acceptance letter and didn’t follow through with Oberlin’s and couldn’t fathom the financial burden to even apply to my “reach” school. I loved my college experience, but resent that I never let myself imagine going to a program or school I could have an innate passion for, or let myself delve into any one thing too deeply — I was too aware that I needed as many safety nets as possible. (And look at what happened– I have a fine arts degree and am teaching in rural Arkansas… thanks, safety nets!) In sum: I’m mad at what I didn’t let myself attempt to do strictly because of finances.
  2. I went to college! I am going to be free of debt! I managed to do this thing that seems so utterly impossible, and I don’t think it’s amounted to much outside of personal gratification. Great, I have a degree and a job and some money in the bank. I consistently tell people I can take on more work, pay for more dinners, and buy one more pair of shoes (Walmart or clearance DSW) because I don’t have a family to pay for. I put myself in a situation where I could afford a low income because it was intentional and planned. By deciding to be a teacher, I decided to accept a low wage for x amount of years because of the other life commitments I don’t have yet. When I look at the other teachers around me, I realize that I could never do what they do. That if I had a child or husband I would immediately look for work with twice my salary. This makes me feel guilty on many levels.
  3. I bargain shop as if I do it intentionally, but in reality it’s out of necessity. It’s funny to shop at Walmart, ironic to find dresses at Salvation Army, and flattering to borrow friends clothes because they’re cute. But honestly, like most people, the best I can do if we’re talking about new anything is to buy whatever was made overseas. Yes, I eat raw produce over cans or processed food… but have to seriously consider if I can afford organic or not. Yes, I like to wear J Crew and Banana Republic… when it’s sub-$30 in the back of the store.

I rarely consciously consider or make opinions about money, aside from knowing I need to save what I can and enjoy my life in the moment when I can. This is probably the most self-aware I’ve been as an adult when it comes to finances, and I’m sincerely angry about where I stand. One punch from the article was a woman talking about “buying” doctors. It’s so brutally and obviously honest that with more money, you get better care and a longer (but not better, arguably) life. And of course the example is cancer. I’ll type this for the first and only time: if my family had more money, would my mom’s cancer have been detected earlier? Would she have survived longer? How would that have impacted her quality of life, or mine?

And then, finally, because this is my teacher blog after all: What does this say about my kids, their families, and the community I live in? What kind of opinion will or should I make about where I grew up or where I live now? About why people behave how they do or where all of our relative happiness comes from?

One reason I don’t care about money is because as of three months ago, I sincerely believed it doesn’t have to dictate happiness. Now I’m not so positive anymore. And I’ve finally made it to this weird maternal feeling where I want my students to have things different and better than I did. I want them to risk applying to NYU or art school without finances weighing on them. How on earth I can apply that to my every day teaching practice, I haven’t the faintest idea.

One Response

  1. Jay Fogleman

    Hi Caroline,

    You made choices. Though I don’t know you beyond your writing, I am confident that you will make those choices pay off in the end! It is great to hear you thinking about your students” goals and dreams. My advice would be to loose the anger and focus on what you wish for your students and what you can do to give them capacity to struggle through adversity. Some of them are facing realities tougher than yours. Also: Good call on nixing the prison visit. ;-) Good luck this year,

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