• On Shame

    $159,268 into the story, the room is empty.

     

    The man I have started dating listens to my stories of how the dinners at the American Academy would unfold, the careful arrangement of the linens and the cutlery, how each fellow was applauded on the Monday of their arrival. As I spoke, he sat expressionless with his pastel coloured key-lime cheesecake, here in the sprawling suburbs of Brentwood, Missouri.

    But too, I would recount the details and stages of the selection process, as we sat across from a walk-in clinic where old men passed through automated double-doors. And too, I would explain to him the relative importance of the awards won by the other fellows before arriving at the Academy, and even during the months of their fellowship. And my voice traveled across the table and around the centerpiece, past his round balding head, even past the waxing and waning line of customers that seemed now the only marker of time. In this way, he had lost interest in speaking, or the details of my brief and precarious life, carried and slighted by a community to which he did not belong.

    That he would finally give voice to a shifting region of palpable discontent, in some ways, seemed to anchor the conversation, after months of its becoming repeatedly, persistently unmoored.

    Did you pay your own money for the plane ticket.

    Their budget wasn’t even in the hundred thousands.  

    Do you even own your own car.

    Has anyone ever told you this is irresponsible.

    ¤

    Each time, my dates would end the same way, utterly respectful of the vow I had already made to repay my master promissory note, an event that was not wholly guaranteed, but must of course be witnessed alone.

    In the past few years, such headlines as MEN UNLIKELY TO MARRY WOMEN WITH LARGE DEBTS have become commonplace in electronic and print media.

    A recent New York Times article poses the question, When, exactly, are you supposed to reveal a debt of this size during the courtship? Earlier than you’d disclose, say, a chronic illness?

    ¤

    The first modest debt was incurred when my parents were refused as cosigners. Having entered both substance abuse rehabilitation and bankruptcy, they were not the ideal risk to be undertaken by a financier, let alone the college and university system. It was decided that because they were not likely to repay a loan, it would be less complicated to hold me entirely, wholly responsible for it. The regulations carried within them provisions for daughters like myself, who were classified as independent by the Federal Student Aid System, along with orphans and wards of the court.

    Which is to say, I was marked as familyless, and it seemed that I would remain persistently in this quiet, though somewhat desperate, state. Because I had no one to sign on my behalf, no one would ever give me their name to keep.

    Once separated, once severed, it became impossible to return to the world.

    ¤

    What will happen when I graduate, my advisees ask me. In each question, the answer lies folded in its darkest and most meticulous seam.

    Every decision I had made leading up to the that day, as I watched flies land on my date’s bald and glistening head, arose from fear. Which is to say, grace has its limits and its duration. The repayment period would commence, and the phone calls would begin. I knew that if the seemingly endless string of enrollments were never broken, I could live my younger life in peace.  To that end, advanced degree followed advanced degree and advanced degree, and so on, until I was buried in a heap of seminar papers and master promissory notes.

    The women of my generation lived in dread of their inevitable repayment. They staved off, with classes and certificates, and half-time enrollment, the moment in which what they had borrowed would come due.  In a recent conversation, a colleague, Sina, who works as a registrar for a public high school, confessed, “One of my motivations for pursuing a grad degree was that I could not afford to repay my undergrad loans … I went through a cycle of having my salary garnished for my earliest student loans and I could not afford to pay rent and my car payment each month.” As the interview progressed, it became clear that Sina was still, at that very moment, in school.

    Because the fear of repayment, that inevitable end of grace, is so great, women like Sina have registered for classes and degree programs that they do not want or need. I myself completed several parallel academic programs, including two terminal degrees in the same field. As we staved off the inevitable, our debts mounted, becoming all the more insurmountable as we tried to buy ourselves time.

    The men, or at least the men have I dated, didn’t seem to understand the urgency, the fear, the dark and pervasive anxiety surrounding the moment the first payment came due. We stayed safe behind the ivy-covered walls of our respective colleges, and perhaps because of that, we could not move on to the next phase of life.

    The worry was this: No man would ever want a woman who refuses to grow up.

    ¤

    Come nights, I would consider the nature of my entrapment, alone and half asleep in a bed of burned sheets. The joke was this: I was one of many girls, hedged in by an invisible fence, unable to move or breathe for the endless burdens heaped on my shallow chest. This entrapment was, more than anything, a problem of girlhood, the dark lining beneath the hem of the dress.

    According to a recent article in The Guardian, women owe over two-thirds of all student loans. Michelle Chen elaborates, “the new sexism problem on campus might not be so much outright discrimination but a slow-burning crisis of eroding economic opportunity once they enter the workforce.” What she says is true: the debts I carried on my back undermined my ability to start a life, to marry, to build a small house on the edge of that unremarkable Missouri town.

    But is this a problem for women? Of course, there must be unmarriageable men, with seemingly endless debts, promissory notes, and a heap of cardmember agreements. No, the truth was this: though our dealings with the system were cowardly, even manipulative, the problem belonged only and solely to us. As a team of researches associated with the Association of American University Women recently noted, “AAUW’s analysis of federal government data has found that women are more likely to take on debt (44 percent of female undergraduates take on debt in a year compared to 39 percent of male undergraduates). On average women take on more debt than men at almost every degree level and type, from associate degrees to doctoral degrees and across institution types.”  What this data shows is the ways gender oppression is linked, quietly and inexorably, to economic oppression. Though we often fail to recognize it, the ability to move on in life, to marry, to move from place to place, to work and advance in one’s career — all presume economic freedom, the lack of financial obligation or attachment. In this way we remained always, unmistakably, still.

    As public intellectual Slavoz Žižek observes, “One thing is clear: …we are now entering a period in which a kind of economic state of emergency is becoming permanent: turning into a constant, a way of life.” For us, this way of life was to remain ensconced in the safety of the university, far from the world and everything in it, including the appropriate consequences for our financial choices. These willing hostages, in my experience, were always and inevitably female.

    In a conversation with my friend and fellow writer, Anne Champion, who is also an MFA Program graduate, an activist and an educator, she observed the relationship between inequities associated with race and gender, and economic systems in which we circulate. She elaborates, “Student debt immobilizes people, and it is a way to ensure that those from lower social classes stay within a lower tier than those privileged with wealth for a lifetime.” The master promissory note is more than anything a wielding of power, on a social and political level as well as a deeply intimate one.

    Its threat, its frightening and fearful presence, is felt most when we are alone.

    ¤

    Still, it was possible, on some days, to drive out to Tower Grove. When I came back from my friend’s kitchen, the narrative arc had already been formed without my inevitable intervention.

    I entered the room, carrying tea and store-bought cookies, but Lizzy was already midsentence, “…so I walked into her apartment. There was only a futon, a blanket, and huge crate of microwavable soups. You see, she wasn’t capable of cooking anything more complicated than that.” Lizzy went on to explain that she cared for her ill-prepared and unskilled colleague, constantly surveilling the tiny apartment to make sure she didn’t starve, burn, or fall asleep in the bitter cold.

    Lizzy, a writer and staff critic for a local newspaper, had recently finished a Master of Fine Arts degree in Poetry in the esteemed program housed by Purdue University. We met at a poetry reading, which Lizzy hosted as part of her work in the nonprofit sector, which was required by a federally administered loan forgiveness program.

    That this other, less articulate girl, alone and incapable, had been admitted to the highly selective program at Purdue was, of course, a source of wonder for us, who prided ourselves on our ability to care for ourselves, to shop, organize, and stock our own fridges.

    Lizzy explained, in fearful and loving detail, how some individuals simply are not capable of functioning outside of the university system. This nameless girl, with her futon and crate of soups, had been handed off from program to program, the recommenders and referees, admissions committees and program directors, fully aware that they were extending an unearned livelihood in the form of student loan eligibility. We realized, slowly and indelibly, that debt was creating a permanent underclass, as dependent as they were powerless.

    For many of us, loans had this very effect, acting as an immobilizing force, a silent though ever-present wielding of power.  As one borrower stated in an interview, “due to my incredibly low income I’m not paying anything back right now. However, this puts me in a strange position. I can either keep myself below the poverty line so I qualify for the payment plan or instead get a job that affords me a living wage but then face 2K a month in student loan payments.”  It is debt that keeps us from contributing both within the profession and outside of it. In this way, we are forced to choose between poverty and a more enlightened poverty.

    We fear graduation and credit checks as much as intimacy, which would require revealing something of one’s financial situation. One needs a bank account, after all, to build a life.

    ¤

    Which is to say, this immobility was a source of constant shame for me in my twenties and early thirties, believing that I was simply incapable of overcoming adversity and rebuilding my financial identity. It was my fault, after all, that no man thought I was worth the money I owed in unsubsidized Stafford loans.

    In a recent news story, a veterinarian stated that she owed $517,000 in student loans that she knew she will never be able to repay. Journalist Ester Bloom notes that for this indebted professional, “Part of that shame…comes from knowing she’s privileged.” She is, after all, fortunate to have had a way through school at all.

    For years, we, as Americans, have believed that education is the inevitable path to economic mobility, that additional schooling implies greater and more lucrative opportunity. For this reason, borrowers blame themselves that they cannot, will not ever, meet the obligations they face upon graduation.

    Yet we have refused to notice the ways universities operate within a capitalist framework, marketing this perceived opportunity as a product that is bought, but cannot and will not be resold. In many instances, degree programs prey on young, hopeful students, burdening them with debt, leaving them with a degree in Fashion Technology but immobilizing them later in life.

    Women especially fail to recognize that they’re choosing education over a family, a house, the freedom to change jobs if they wish. We are taught to practice gratitude, not ask ill-informed questions, and to take advantage of an opportunity when it arises. And so we accumulate degrees and certificates, credentials we could likely do without.

    We are not shown what is behind the velvet curtain, that is, until after we’ve signed it away.

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