I graduated from high school in the top 10%. Of course I was going to go to college. I turned down the full scholarship to any of the community colleges in town because I wanted to go to the big university. Maybe that was a mistake. I got the Pell grant and took out loans to go to the university for art. That was my special talent, why wouldn’t I develop it? It was the 80’s and no one advised me except school counselors. They tell everyone with good grades to go to college and they tell you it doesn’t matter what kind of degree you get as long as you get one.
I went for a year and dropped out. Not really sure why now, but I got a job painting tiles with a small family business. I stayed in that job for almost 8 years. I was happy until I realized it wasn’t going anywhere. I wasn’t making enough money to pay the student loan, so I deferred. Maybe I paid on it for a year or so.
After a few more dead end jobs I decided to return to school and finish my degree in art. I had found my love, ceramics. Science and art, awesome! I graduated with honors in 1998. But by then manufacturing jobs, especially anything having to do with ceramics, had been shipped to Korea, Vietnam and China. All the businesses in town that made anything with clay was out of business. The only jobs in ceramics were teaching jobs at community art centers, community colleges and universities. I know everyone who has those jobs and they will die in those jobs, they know how lucky they are.
I was, however, able to get a studio tech job in one of those places. Part time with the city. It even had benefits. After a few years I again, felt like it was going no where. I wasn’t making enough money to pay the student loan and was feeling like I needed to do something drastic. I was also finding the summers in Arizona unbearable. Maybe mistake number 2.
So, I moved to Portland, the opposite of Arizona and went to engineering school, the opposite of my bent. That’s the ticket, I thought. Even with a 2 year degree I could find a better paying job than I had in Arizona. I was going to remake myself.
I hated it, I was miserable. I felt like the people in my classes didn’t understand me. They were so linear and didn’t get my jokes and snickered at me because I asked so many questions. As Barbie said, “math is hard”. My grades were fine, a mixed bag of A’s, B’s and C’s. But, I was not able to find enough financial support to get through without getting a job, and I needed all of my spare time to study. I could do math but it didn’t come easy to me.
So, I dropped out and got a job as a courier. My student loans were probably up to $30,000 or more by this time. The courier job wasn’t even paying enough to pay the interest so, I kept deferring and forbearing. Plus, Portland was not a cheap city to live in like Phoenix was. And I stress the WAS.
I moved back to Phoenix where I had friends and connections. I thought I could get a job at the one and only ceramic supply store in town. Hell, I have a degree in ceramics and I had been shopping there for years and knew most of their products. I asked for $12/hr and was offered $10/hr. This was 2004. Phoenix wasn’t so cheap anymore because of the housing bubble plus, there was that nagging student loan. They wouldn’t budge.
I ended up getting a job with a faux finish painter. She paid me well as an independent contractor but the work wasn’t steady. I still was not able to pay anything on the student loan. When the housing bubble burst in 2008 there was not enough work to keep me employed and I was competing with other faux finish painters for work. I again, had to remake myself. I could see that anything in the arts was not viable anymore.
Somehow, I got into organic farming. “Hey, there you go”, I said to myself. People always need to eat and “green” is up and coming. Seemed like a good direction. I got a job with a small organic farm and became farm manager. I did everything except the tractor work and the computer work. EVERYTHING. I wasn’t getting paid much but it was a bare minimum and I was learning how to farm! And I was able to buy my house at a smokin’ deal because of the burst housing bubble. I was happier than I’d ever been. I was being creative and doing good things for the Earth and people. I loved it even though it was hard work out in the heat.
But, I lost that job this past October, 2012 because the owner had mismanaged the money. We knew he was a screw up but since he didn’t interfere with us we figured we could work around him and build the business ourselves. Since then I have worked for 2 other small organic farms, briefly, and I found both of them to be highly exploitive. Terrible work conditions. I was not willing to sacrifice my body and health at this age for very little money.
And still, that nagging student loan looms and grows. Last time I checked it was over $60,000. That was a few years ago. As of yet, I haven’t had the experiences some others have had of garnished wages or anything like that. I try to keep up on deferring and forbearing. That’s how I was able to get this house, is because I have kept up with that. But I worry that I will lose my lovely house or something worse. I can’t imagine losing my house. It has given me a semblance of stability.
My mother is getting old and will need help very soon. I’m still unemployed. I have a weird work history and it’s difficult to find a job here in Arizona that pays a decent wage (right to work for less, you know). Going back to school is not an option. I just got an email from a grocery store where I applied for a cashiers job and they told me I was “unqualified”. Really? I have a fucking degree and lots of work experience. Couldn’t they have said over qualified? If there is a job that is unskilled out there it is cashier. They don’t even have to count back change anymore.
I am talented, smart and skilled and I have somehow fallen through the cracks. Reading others stories, I don’t feel so alone. How is it that so many useful people have become useless and desperate? I see so many short sighted and stupid people doing so much better than me. I don’t understand.