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Reflections on Paying My Last School Loan

February 18, 2009

Last week I wrote my last check to my school loan company. It was an emotional moment. It took me 14 years to pay off my school loans, and throughout my post college experience my loans seemed like leaden balloons tethered to my ankle, following me wherever I went, weighing me down, and keeping me pegged. For those of you out there still paying off your undergraduate or graduate loans, you know exactly what I mean. Debt is debt is debt. It’s psychologically exhausting, but for better or worse, I did it.

I had parents that never went to college and either couldn’t afford to save up for me or didn’t think to. My dad tried to discourage me from even applying to school. I remember sitting in Pizza-a-Go-Go on University Avenue in Palo Alto, with him making ink marks on a napkin saying over and over again, “You shouldn’t even CONSIDER college. It’s too expensive. There is NO WAY you can go.” I watched him mull it over, saying these words to me, circling the imaginary numbers on the napkin and for whatever reason he just seemed so OUTLANDISH to me. Not go to college? What sort of WEIRD ASS world was he inhabiting? I mean, who didn’t go to college who wanted to? I believed somehow it would work. Luckily, I had my mom who has always been a BIG SCHEMER. While struggling with more basic mothering skills, she loved the idea of me going to college, and set her beams on making sure it happened. She was the one who said, we’ll figure it out! I’ll always be grateful to her for that.

We did figure it out. My mom was able to help out the first year, but the following 3 years was a patchwork of funds coming from loans, my own money, and the occasional help from my grandparents. I can remember standing in line every single semester during registration with knots in my stomach not knowing how much I would have to pay and would I even be able to afford it? My last semester, due to my total denial and fear around my school loans, I botched up the paperwork and was faced with a bill for school that I had not anticipated. Fortunately, I had lived temporarily at my boyfriend’s grandparents’ empty house rent free for 6 months and had some money socked away. I literally gave them every penny I had except for $3. I would have wept over the loss of all that I had saved, but I was so dazzled by the fact that I actually HAD the money they wanted that I just started laughing.

I have mixed feelings about my college experience. I went to a hippie/alternative education college that while it gave me a place to live with other people and books, it didn’t help me build much for a life OUTSIDE of school. I didn’t care until much later when I watched other people take something other than a love of books and art and grrrl rockers and make (ahem) CAREERS. People asked me what I was going to do after a graduated from college and I said, “Waitressing.”

With the same clueless attitude, I was completely in denial about paying back the loans. I remember the first summer after college, when I was visiting my mom, my brother said to me, “Sallie Mae called.” I said, “Sallie Mae? I don’t know anybody named Sallie Mae. I wonder who it is!” Boy, did I find out! I freaked out. How in the world would I ever be able to pay this? I was nannying and making $10 an hour (a fortune to me), but barely enough to cover everything including the payments. Thus began my relationship to my school loan companies–a dynamic that would last at least another 10 years. I would pay and pay and then go into denial and then pay and pay and then go into denial. Every place I ever moved, I’d panic about getting a job because I had to PAY MY LOANS and sometimes I would and sometimes I wouldn’t. Oh I got to know ol‘ Sallie Mae alright. Yep, Sallie Mae got to be quite a pal of mine.

About 4 years ago, I started to think about money differently and I tried an experiment. Instead of feeling like a victim to my loan payments, I started to think about what I was actually paying for. I thought about the school I went to and what I still was living from that experience. I thought about the friendships I still had from then. I thought about the writers and artists I had discovered through taking classes that had propelled me artistically. I thought about this every time I wrote a check and it helped. I was grateful for that experience and instead of seeing THE DEBT I started understanding really what I was paying for.

I mailed in my last check and then I called the loan company to tell them the check was on its way. I said to the man, “I just wanted to thank you for helping me get an education.” And while it may sound cheesy and weird, I meant it. The freedom I felt was powerful. It was not unlike the proud moment of graduating. I felt I had worked hard and created something for myself and now I was entering a new world of my own making. Only this time, I didn’t owe anyone a thing. I was free.

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