Student Loan Nightmares by Christina Knowles

college-loan-debt-roommateAs the next presidential election nears, everyone is talking about college, taxes, the price of tuition, and how those struggling to enter or maintain their positions in the middle class are going to pay for an education. Some are rather harsh in their criticism of those who may not have the gumption to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, something one might note that is quite impossible. Others note that one must hang on to something to leverage his pull up, but that it does require effort. Still others suggest an elevator be made available to everyone hoping to rise.

Traditionally, federal student loans, I think, have been put in that middle category—an aide to the motivated and responsible individual, a way to invest in one’s future with a concrete reward at the end, which enables the individual to pay back that debt after becoming a productive and valuable member of our economic system. Everyone wins, right?

Well, my student loan nightmare really began in grad school. I scraped my way through undergrad courses with no help from my family and through no fault of their own. My father was a WWII disabled veteran, who was denied benefits, and I knew I couldn’t even ask for help paying for college. I finished two associate’s degrees by working my way through and paying as I went, in addition to a couple of very small loans. I paid those back immediately and took another small one to transfer to a university. After twenty-four credit hours, and with a 3.9 GPA, I finished my bachelor’s on an academic scholarship. Like many who do not fully understand that student loans are not really meant to help, but are a means of profit for the lender, I deferred them and took another to start my master’s because everyone knows to make a living as a teacher, you must have at least some grad school.

When I finished my Master of Arts in Creative Writing, I was already teaching, but I took another loan to get my teaching certificate to work in the public school system, taking all my education classes for graduate credit, while simultaneously beginning course work on a Ph.D. in order to teach on the college level. By the time I got my teaching program finished, I was a single mother on a teacher’s income. When I took my loans, I was married and fully expected I would have no trouble paying them back. But as life routinely shows us, things don’t always turn out as we expect. It was time to face my student loan nightmare.

I get it. I took the loans; it’s my responsibility to pay them back. I am not a deadbeat, a freeloader. I am someone the system was meant to help. I am an intelligent and motivated person who came from the wrong side of the tracks, grew up in bad neighborhoods, had no hope of going to college. Now I am a highly educated and productive member of the middle class who has not been unemployed in the past thirty years. Still, I do admit, however, that I think that college should be free for all academically inclined citizens because it levels the playing field, provides opportunity for all, helps to eliminate the caste system we say we abhor, educates our citizens so that they can participate in the political process, allows us to compete with the world in science and innovation, and increases the ideals of freedom and democracy. An educated people raises the overall health of the economy as well. We need our citizens to be educated—not just for their sakes, but for our country’s health. Nevertheless, I took my student loans with the intention of paying them back, which I am now doing. I just had no idea that it would have been better to put my college education on a credit card than going through our federal programs. Of course, I wouldn’t have been able to get any other type of loan because we save all the good deals (low interest rates) for the people who don’t need them. But mainly, our generation was fibbed to, if not exactly lied to. We were told that student loans were great. They existed to help. They were low interest, were easily deferred if you ever had a financial hardship, you did not have to worry about paying them back until you could afford it. To the naïve poor girl with big academic dreams, it sounded too good to be true. It was.

Dealing with the government loan system has become quite similar to owing the mob money. Here is one brief example that is typical of my experience with them.

A couple of years ago, the company who owns my direct government loans (yes, they sold them to a for-profit company), suddenly, inexplicably changed my name, address, phone number—everything— back to my previous information from twelve years ago, and sent all correspondence to my ex-husband, including some important information regarding paperwork that had to be completed by a certain date. I never got it. As a result, they deducted $1500 from my checking account instead of $300. When I called to complain, they realized their error, and put it back after about a week of having an empty account. I had asked them to refund the $1200 and keep my regular payment that was deducted each month. They put it all back instead, and then sent me a notice that I missed a payment, so they capitalized my interest, added $20,000 to my loan, raised my payment and my interest rate, and said, “Suck it.” I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that was their attitude.

This was not an isolated incident either. Due to paperwork errors that had nothing to do with me, my interest and payment has been raised periodically. Then, about two weeks ago, I went on my loan site to check it (because now I check it all the time with great fear and dread in the pit of my stomach), and I noticed that all my information was once again back to my ex-husband’s information, even though I am remarried and have lived at my current address for eight years. In a state of panic, I began the process of phone calls, emails, and faxing information, wondering how many thousands of dollars would be added to my loan this time.

Long story, short (too late, right?), I borrowed about $55,000 for one degree $40,000 for another, and after paying over $15,000 back, I magically now owe $152,000. At least as of yesterday. Last week I owed $151,000, and I have no idea how it went up a thousand dollars in a week. I’ve never missed a payment or submitted one late. In fact, it’s on automatic deduction. When pressed for explanations, the loan personnel go into impossible-to-understand details about capitalization (Did I mention I was an English major?) and the fine print on my thirty-two-page loan documents. My payments are now about $800 a month, but I never even touch the principle. I hope to utilize the ten-year forgiveness plan for public servants, but hope is really too strong a word for this cluster—k. In truth, I have little hope of this “loan forgiveness” ever being realized because the loan company will, no doubt, continue to sabotage my efforts. They have even lied to me about special teacher programs when I asked to apply for them.

For some naïve reason, I thought that government loan programs were there to provide opportunities to those who would not be able to go to college any other way. I idealistically thought that, as Americans, we wanted an educated society, if not for the altruistic reasons we claim, then at least to raise the general level of the economy in order to compete with other countries in the world, and finally, because having the majority of its citizens educated is the best way to ensure freedom and democracy for a country. Clearly, I was wrong. We want to offer education to our citizens as a carrot to wave before them, teasing them with a better life than that with which they were born, only to yoke them in an indentured servitude from which they may never be free.

As politicians speak of free college and more and more high schools are offering free classes for college credit, what will we do about the scores of us who have already gone to college, and will never be able to retire because long after our homes are paid for, if we can even afford a home, our student loans will still linger on? My mortgage is much less scary than my student loans because I don’t have to renegotiate it every year, they don’t constantly raise the payment, and I can sell my house if I can’t handle it. I can’t give back my education. Look, I’m not a deadbeat. I want to pay back my $95,000, but I am a public servant. I teach other people’s children, I work long hours, I work after work—unpaid, I go years without a raise, and I make much less than those with the same education in other careers. In the midst of all this reform, may I simply suggest that the exorbitant interest be removed from the loans of those of us who did not have these opportunities available to us? At least remove that $20,000 added for a mistake that was not even mine. Or do something about that unexplained $1000 increase in just one week.

I have a full-time job as a public high school teacher, I also teach part-time at a college, and I get paid a little for my writing, but my student loan is always there, hovering as some dark force over me, and it’s the single most stressful thing in my life. The harder I work, the more my payment goes up. If I had a home loan for $95,000, I would have a fixed rate I could afford. It would have an end date. I would be paying part of the principle every month. I am not a deadbeat just because I want—no, I need— retroactive student loan reform, and these payment plans of 10% of income don’t work for two reasons: they continue to snowball interest out of control, and they discourage people from getting ahead and making more money. Someday I can hope to pay $1000 a month to my student loans, all the while the principle goes up with no end in sight.

If our government can bail out corporations and corrupt banks, they can forgive the interest on previous student loans, which in my opinion, is nothing more than illegal usury with the government as kingpin and the private loan companies as mob captains and leg-breakers. At the very least, it is government sanctioned indentured servitude. This is the 21st century; let’s catch up with this rest of the free world, and stop pretending our failed systems are part of a healthy free market society, or if we truly care about the financial health of our citizens, show it.—Christina Knowles

Life-Lessons from The Shawshank Redemption by Christina Knowles

The-Shawshank-Redemption1            In 1982, while still in high school, I first read Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” in a short story collection called Different Seasons and have been hooked on King ever since. Then came the movie version: Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, two of my favorite actors. It has been my favorite movie since the first time I saw it in 1994. If you haven’t seen it, where have you been? A movie about hope, friendship, and the indomitable human spirit, it’s still the highest rated movie of all time according to the IMBD. If you haven’t seen the movie, you need to stop reading and watch it now. Get ready to “get busy living or get busy dying.”

*SPOILER ALERT* If you’ve never seen it, you might want to stop here. Anyway, there are some minor differences between the story and the movie. In the story Red is an Irish guy with graying red hair, there are a few different wardens during Andy’s incarceration, and the last one is forced to retire instead of getting busted and committing suicide. Tommy, who had new evidence of Andy’s innocence, was bribed with minimum-security prison instead of getting shot, and Brooks played a slightly more minor role in the story than in the movie. Also, the story ends with Red getting ready to go meet Andy instead of arriving in Mexico. However, minor differences aside, Darabont held closely to King’s original story and was true to the integrity of the characters. Even many of the lines from the movie are dialogue taken directly from the story. This story is so poignant, so profound, and so universal that I don’t know anyone who sees it without feeling like he just got schooled on life and how to live it. The basic premise is that prison is a metaphor for life and, no matter what life gives us, how we handle it makes all the difference. But there are so many life-lessons in this movie that it’s worth taking a closer look at them.

One of the first things I get from this movie is that life is just not fair. Just get used to it, bad things happen to good people all the time. Not only did Andy’s wife cheat on him, but he is blamed for her murder as well as for her boyfriend’s. He got two consecutive life sentences, and he didn’t do anything. Life’s not fair, but Andy did not let even that ruin his life because not only can suffering be endured, you never know when things will suddenly turn around. Time is going to pass anyway. Will it be good time or bad?

                  Andy went through some serious suffering at the hands of the “sisters” in prison, as well as at the hands of the guards and the warden. But Andy doesn’t let anything in that he doesn’t want in. We see that the body can be broken, but not the spirit. No one can take away what is inside you. The human spirit cannot be contained within the walls of any prison if you don’t let it. We have control over our inner life, and no one can affect us in any significant way unless we let them.

Andy always had hope, which is the main theme of the movie, but not only did he have it, he shared it with everyone around him. Hope is essential to human endurance. A lot of long-term prisoners at Shawshank didn’t have a lot of hope. Red said hope was a dangerous thing, but Andy didn’t see it that way. He thought losing hope was more dangerous. Hope kept him going when he didn’t think he had the strength, and hope led to action. He was willing to take the biggest risks because of hope. Andy also gave hope to Red, who might have ended up like Brooks if not for him.

Brooks had become institutionalized. The thing that struck me about Brooks was how we can so gradually get used to the way things are, even if they’re terrible, that we become immobile from fear of change. When Brooks was released after serving over thirty years in prison, he couldn’t take it on the outside. He lost hope because he let fear paralyze him.

Red didn’t want to become like Brooks. He learned to take risks from Andy. What did he have to lose? When Andy had had enough, when he decided he couldn’t take it anymore, he took a risk, and it paid off. There was no point in playing it safe because time was passing rapidly, and if you just play it safe, you’re just waiting to die. Andy said, “Get busy living or get busy dying,” and taking risks is part of living. Time is going to pass either way, so we may as well spend it living. He successfully taught this lesson to Red because when the time came, Red was willing to take a risk to jump parole and take a bus to join Andy and start living rather than ending up like Brooks.

But before Andy ever took this biggest risk, he planned ahead and used his skills that he already possessed. Before Andy went to prison, he set up an account under a pseudonym with some money in it. He hid a fake passport and ID under a rock in the middle of a field under an old oak tree—just in case. It was there waiting for him when he needed it. When he was in prison, he used his skills with accounting and his knowledge of tax law to become a valued and necessary person in the prison. Eventually his skills led him to successfully escape. He was also educated and intelligent. His cleverness led to his freedom, but along the way he shared his knowledge with others and showed them how important knowledge and ingenuity is to survival. He had self-worth and persistence as well. No one could make Andy feel like he was worthless or take away his belief in himself. He endured, knowing he deserved better, and set about to make it happen. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, as the saying goes, and Andy wrote letters every week to the prison board until they funded his new prison library.

Eventually his persistence led to his freedom too. If you chip away at a problem a little at a time, it will yield big results. Andy picked away at the crumbling concrete walls of his cell for years, hiding his work behind a series of pin-up girl posters, smuggling the powdered remains out into the yard on a daily basis. He took his time (he had plenty) and kept up the pressure. Eventually, he had his path to freedom. He never could have gotten away with it if he tried to do it all at once, or had given up because it was taking too long.

Andy always had purpose. Immediately upon arriving at Shawshank, Andy took up hobbies. He collected rocks, carved figurines, built up a great library within the prison, and got a job doctoring the books for the warden. He even tutored a fellow inmate, helping him pass his GED. Keeping busy, whether in prison or in life, makes the difficult times go faster, gives us purpose, and can even be enjoyable.

            He noticed beauty even in prison, and it made his time go easier. He read books, carved beautiful figurines, appreciated his pin-up girls, and let beautiful music take him away from the prison in transcendent bliss. Beauty would be easy to ignore in a place like Shawshank, but Andy let it help him rise above his surroundings.

Andy made friends and took care of them. He helped Tommy get his GED, he was a loyal confidante to Red, he finagled a deal to get beers for his work crew, he brought culture and beauty to the prison, and he offered his help in financial matters to several people at the prison. As a result, Andy was well-liked, respected, made real friends, and put himself in a position to help himself. But the most important thing he did for everyone was to remind them that the human spirit can never be imprisoned. He genuinely cared for others, rejoiced in their successes, and was loyal and kind to those who earned his friendship. He realized that people need to feel free and have dignity and respect. If we have this, we don’t need much else. When Andy got the guard to buy his work crew beer, and they sat on the roof enjoying the suds on a summer afternoon, it was like all of them had been set free for just a little while.

Andy teaches us that sometimes you just have to take a stand for what you believe in. When Andy found an old record album of beautiful opera, he locked himself in the office and broadcasted the beautiful music over the loudspeakers, so that all the inmates could experience a moment of beauty. He knew he would be punished, but it was worth the cost.

Andy shows us that we might have to be willing to go through some shit to get what we need. Andy knew that freedom meant wading and crawling through 500 yards of sewer to get to the other side, so he bucked up and just did it. The lesson here: Suck it up and do what’s necessary.

Next, we learned that transformation is possible. People can change if they learn how. Andy changed a lot of lives, but he probably had the biggest effect on Red. He changed Red’s outlook, and he taught Red not to be institutionalized and to have hope. Red also was rehabilitated. He was a different person than the brash young man who entered Shawshank.

Being honest is another theme. Red sat in front of the parole board time and time again, giving them the stock answers about how he was rehabilitated, not a threat to society, had learned his lesson, and he was always denied release. When Red didn’t care enough anymore to say what he thought they wanted to hear, he was just honest. He talked about the young man he was when he committed his crime, he talked about what he’d learned through the years, about his regrets, and about how he wished he could go back and talk to his younger self. Recognizing his sincerity and his true rehabilitation, the parole board approved his release.

            Another important lesson from Shawshank is not to be bitter. In the end, Andy claims responsibility for driving his wife away, and even feels bad for putting her in the position she was when she was murdered, even though he spent more than twenty years in prison, paying the penalty for a crime of which he was innocent. He wasn’t bitter. Instead of dwelling on others, and things he could not control, he reflected on himself and how he could learn and change, and be a better person.

And finally, we learn that it’s good to take a rest. Andy headed to Mexico to live a better life. He earned it, he deserved it, so he took it. At the end, we are left with the impression that Andy is going to spend the rest of his days living out the hopes and dreams of his long and unjust incarceration. He isn’t going to punish himself, living in fear or anger. He’s going to “get busy living.”

So, I apologize for going on so long on this topic, but this story is so rich with meaning and deeply insightful that I just couldn’t help myself. This is why it’s my personal favorite when it comes to movies, and why I consider King, who has an intuitive understanding of the human condition even in its most degraded state, the Charles Dickens of our era. So, what will it be? Good time or bad? Will you get busy living or get busy dying?—Christina Knowles


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