Bootstrapping My Way Into the Ivory Tower
Critics of higher education love to suggest that we professors are living it up. But I’m not. I have less than $100 in my checking account. I’ve been ignoring a recurring robo-call from a company trying to collect a $50 payment that is overdue. The gutters on my house are falling off. My electric bill is late, and I can’t drive my car because the check-engine light is on.
Oh, and I received tenure this past spring. I’m not kidding. And no, I don’t have a fat savings account, and no, I am not irresponsible with money.
My salary is average for someone of my rank, discipline, and college size. If you’re a college professor, people assume that if you don’t have a healthy bank account, you must be a closet gambler or have some other hidden addiction. But my financial predicament is a result of bootstrapping my way into academe, and the harsh reality of leaping from rural Arkansas to a professor’s job in upstate New York with no financial support system along the way. Indeed, it was not a leap at all but a long, slow, humiliating slog.
I am a single parent, which explains some of the financial struggle. In the rural South, where I grew up, having children before 25 is the norm. So when I found myself pregnant and alone at 23, I decided to keep the baby, and returned to graduate school a few pounds heavier in the fall. I completed my master’s program through sheer willpower, had my son, and immediately entered a Ph.D. program.
I am aware that, in that situation, most people would simply find a stable job close to home. I was unwilling to relinquish a dream I’d had since the age of 10. So I refused to listen to the voices—some of them quite real and very loud—telling me that in order to be a “good parent,” I should understand my limitations and give up on academe. That is the first obstacle those of us wishing to overcome our lower-income background must face. Many people will tell us we simply cannot have what we want because of who we are, because of where we come from. And the humiliations that came with carrying an illegitimate baby in graduate school? I don’t know where to begin.
There are the countless hours I spent in offices applying for social services: food stamps; Section 8 housing assistance; WIC (food for mothers and young children); Medicaid; heat assistance. There is the professor who told me to leave a teaching assistants’ meeting to which I brought my 4-year-old: “And take that with you,” he said, pointing to my son.
Every single purchase was impossible. I could pay for child care or books, but not both. Every bill that was paid meant another was not. Even generous scholarships don’t take into account seven hundred dollars a month for child care. And yet I felt ashamed for every dollar I borrowed and every bill I couldn’t pay.
When I graduated and began teaching, things improved—a little. Now making about $30,000 a year, I began paying back my student loans. But when my car broke down I couldn’t replace it, and had to bike to the grocery store. Our rental house was small, pest-infested, and drafty. Every month we would eat peanut butter and macaroni and cheese as we waited for the next paycheck.