Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Chapter XXIII: fighting for an education

When I was six years old my parents made a decision that effected our family's future in ways we probably cannot fully comprehend. At the time, my dad was a truck driver and my mom stayed home with me and my three younger siblings, the youngest being a newborn. Years earlier, just a few credits short of a degree, my dad had dropped out of college. My mom had an associate's degree but had not pursued any further education because what she described as the three careers available - secretary, nurse and teacher - did not appeal to her. With four small children, they decided it was time for my dad to go back to school so we moved to Provo, Utah for the next three years while my dad finished his bachelor's degree and obtained and MBA - somehow not necessarily in that order - from BYU. He was an older student supporting a family and faced a different set of challenges as a result.

These challenges resulted in a common theme that was coaxed into my siblings and I throughout our formatives years: get an education and do not delay or get distracted in the pursuit of it. This was not a message that was delivered exclusively to my brothers, my sister and I heard it too. As we got older and hit financially difficult times which forced my mom into the working world, the message was repeated with greater emphasis. My mom felt limited by her lack of education which offered few job options with much financial reward and she became a secretary. Over and over my mother emphasized the power of an education to us - how it will give you options.

As a result, I always had grand career plans growing up, almost all of which included obtaining either a master's degree or PhD and many of which centered around teaching - college, of course. There was never a doubt in my mind that I would not only attend college but that I would also pursue some further degree. I never had to decide if I would go to college, just where and what to focus on.

With this upbringing, the sacrifice of dropping out of college in the middle of my junior year weighed heavily on me. Strangers I met at church, co-workers at my temporary job, my in-laws and nearly everyone I ran into from my past patronized me with ignorant comments about school no longer being important once a girl was married. With the very important exception of my parents, all the voices around me were chanting: girls don't need college. And inside I wanted to yell and scream at these people about how very important college is and that it is not just for boys. I wanted to show them - these people who meant nothing to me but whose judgment I resented - that I was different, that I needed college and I would be going back. No matter what, I was finishing college. I did not doubt myself or my determination.


Before we were married Mitch and I had agreed that since I was over half-way finished with my bachelor's degree that we would focus on getting me through school first. He knew that was of paramount importance to me and agreed to work full time and take just a few classes so that I could take a full load and only work if necessary. While he was amenable to the arrangement in theory, he resented it as it played out.

His resentment was one of the factors which forced me to adjust and compromise and drop out of school and go to work full time. As I diligently counted the months, weeks and days to when I would once more be enrolled as a full time university student, he shuffled from one job to the next and we never discussed his educational goals.

When Spring Quarter 1996 finally arrived as winter melted away, I was anxious to start my classes at the University of Utah. I was relieved to be back in school but was forced to balance my schedule with my new job at a law firm downtown. Each morning I caught a ride with my friend and neighbor, Andra, to the U where she parked in the institute parking lot and I trudged across campus to my 9 am French class in the mine building. During the brief 10 minute break between classes, I hurried down to President's Circle for a class at 10 and at 11 I had to push myself back up the hill for my final class of the day. I had morning classes 5 days a week.

Except my day was just starting. At noon I took the bus downtown and walked down Main Street to my new job in the Judge Building on 3rd South. Initially my job was just to answer phones, which allowed me time to read and study. But it wasn't long before my new employers realized I could do more than greet people as they walked in and began giving me more and more actual work, which meant less and less time to study on the job.

By 530 pm I was on another bus heading home to my husband and dog. Sometimes Mitch would pick me up but more often than not I had to ride the fairly creepy 300 East bus to avoid the extremely creepy State Street bus despite the fact that both stops were actually a longer walk from both my office and my apartment. When I started this routine it was still dark when I got off the bus before 3900 South and walked down Helm Avenue to 200 East past the dilapidated homes with dead lawns fenced in with half-height chain link. Dogs rushed the fences as I nervously walked past and an extremely obsese man sat in the window and stared. The walk made me sick every day I had to do it.

Meanwhile, Mitch had the car. My car. And he was driving it to its fast approaching death. And he complained about it constantly, spitting out accusations at me for its shortcomings. The mystery Mazda was no longer able to accelerate past about 35 to 40 mph. And its exterior was not holding up much better. One morning while backing out of the carport, Mitch pulled off half the front bumper. He reattached it with some rope and probably some duct tape. He would curse that car up and down each time he drove it and treated it with deep disdain and resentment. The poor thing couldn't help but give up and act in a manner consistent with the way it was treated. Mitch pressured me about buying a new car even as he skipped from job to job and money mysteriously vanished from our account.

We needed money to buy a car, to pay rent, to buy food and I needed to pay tuition and buy books. My credit card had reached maximum capacity.

For the first time in my educational career (but not the last), I broke down and applied for a student loan. By leaving SUU I not only gave up a half-tuition scholarship but also the extremely low tuition, the remaining half of which was covered by federal grant money. The University of Utah was almost twice as much in tuition and I no longer had a scholarship and I believe my grant money either dried up or dwindled as well. For reasons I will never understand and always resent, my federal loan did not issue on the first day of classes. Nor was it issued in the first few weeks of classes. Since books were also more expensive at the U, I decided I could hold off buying the less essential ones until my loan check came through. That was mid-March. Over the next few weeks I returned to the financial aid office multiple times and each time I was given another form to complete or asked to sign something or told about some new delay. I was never given an overall timeline and after completing each step I thought I was about to get my check. Waiting in line at the financial aid window meant being late for work. While my employers were flexible and understanding, it ultimately resulted in me either working fewer hours and earning a smaller paycheck or working later into the evening. And the line at the financial aid window was always long, especially at the beginning of the quarter.

Weeks went by and mid-term exams drew closer and I was still missing books. I was copying workbook pages from someone for French and I think I bought one of the novels I needed to read for a history class used but without copies of the text books in the library or any friends to speak of in any of my classes (my tight schedule did not leave a lot of time for pre- or post-class chatting), I was growing desperate.

Despite the paperwork I had been sent from the Federal government indicating my loans had been approved and the money had been sent to my school, the University refused to release the funds. I was panicking over how behind I was in all of my classes and growing more and more afraid to go home each night as Mitch's rage increased over the lack of money. He was in full press mode over our need for a new car - which was real. The car died frequently at inopportune times and places and required jump-starts with some amount of regularity. Mitch would not be able to take a bus to his job given the lack of bus routes available which meant, if our car died, he would have to look for yet another job. And we needed to pay rent.

Anticipating the check would come through any day now, we often spent the weekends looking at used cars and excitedly discussing what we would buy. But we needed my student loan check in order to make the purchase.

I also needed to pay tuition. I believe I was required to pay some portion of the tuition up front in order to commence with classes. I paid for some of it in the little bit of cash I had saved up and the rest I reluctantly put on my credit card and vowed to pay it off as soon as the financial aid check came through. But I still owed tuition and before long I was receiving letters in the mail threatening to withdraw me from classes if I did not pay my past due balance.

By April 26th, I was frantic. I do not think Mitch believed my long drawn out stories about all the time I had spent standing in line in the administration building begging for my money. I did not dare head into another weekend without the check with rent due the following week. Mitch's birthday was in two days and I wanted to be able to buy a car for his birthday, before the Mazda died for good. And I needed those books.

So, on that particular sunny Friday in late April, I went to the administration building with all the evidence in my hands that I felt entitled me to walking out with a check. I vowed to myself to remain calm but refuse to leave without the money. After waiting in one line with no result I was sent to a second window with no line at the other end of the building - the check line. I walked across the shiny brown tile that echoed my footsteps as sun streamed in disjointed beams across the floor and unoccupied line dividers that stood before closed windows hopeful - I was going to the check issuance window. I had outlasted the rush. No one else had complaints on Friday afternoon mid-quarter. When I stepped up to the very last window situated under the exposed stairway, the student on the other side took my ID and punched my information into a computer.

I waited for her to hand over a check.

She then shook her head and told me no, they do not have a check for me and told me to come back on Monday.

I nearly boiled over with rage and crumpled in defeat all at once. I asked her to check again and when she said there was nothing she could do I spilled out all the hoops I had jumped through and the timelines I had been given in a frustrated rush. I spread out papers in front of her that promised me the money and I asked for a manager or anyone who could help me. My voice started shaking as I confessed to my lack of books and how I agonized over how I would pay rent and other bills that were piling up. I showed her the insulting letters from the University which explained I would soon be withdrawn from my classes if I did not pay my tuition . . . and inside I feared explaining it all to Mitch and I cried. I don't mean that a few tears escaped, I mean I cried. A knot grew in my stomach and pushed its way up and out until my hands were shaking and my vision was blurred and I gasped for breath. My entire world felt as if it was crumpling down on top of me as I stood at that window begging and pleading for a different answer.

All I could see in that moment was a future in which I was forced to withdraw from school and will the car to keep running so Mitch would not blame me for its death. I did not want that future. At that moment, the ability to get that check that day felt like a predictor of the direction of my future.


meg said...

I always hated financial aid. And the Student Services Building at the U is so creepy!

I had the same problems though. Ugh.

lizzie said...

ugh. i hated that place.

Tiffany said...

You gave me an ulcer in one chapter. Congratulations. I'm sad and angry all at once.

Rachel said...

U Financial aid is a horrible place that is there to prevent student success...seriously.

I love hearing that your parents didn't just instill educational goals in the boys, but the girls as well. My parents have been pushing me to quit school since I was married to have children. Your parents seem wonderful.

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