I have an awkward love/hate relationship with stress. Actually, its probably not a relationship so much as an acknowledged coexistence. But its not one of those productive, balanced symbiotic relationships. No, its an imbalanced mess from hell. I tend not to stress out about the things that I have the power to change, fix, or control. Things like homework, packing, getting the house ready for a party; those things were a walk in the park. Why? Because it is solely up to me how they turn out. What was the point of worrying over finishing a paper when I knew that I was going to eventually get it finished? I knew I was going to sit down and write it, so there was no reason to stress over it. It would be finished on time (which means couple minutes before the actual deadline). The night before my college senior thesis was due, I wrote fifty pages about paradoxes and nonconformity and history and computer science and art, but never once did I freak out and think, “Good Lord, I’m not going to finish. I’m not going to get this done. I don’t have enough time. I’m going to fail and not be able to graduate.” No, I thought, “I wonder if I can squeeze in a forty-five minute nap between the last section and my conclusion.” Obviously I’m unstable.
And then there are the other things. The big things. The aspects of our lives that we only dissect during the ungodly hours past midnight and before dawn. Those frustrations that we manage somehow to shove into compartments in the recesses of our minds, but like to bring out during the times when we should be relaxing and possibly dreaming about attractive men and shopping sprees. These are things we stress over: our finances, our careers, our relationships (or lack thereof), our futures. I lie in my bed at night and fret over things that are a little bit out of my control, things that I don’t really have much of a say in. Sometimes I’ll be alone and my problems blindside me, knocking me over and leaving me breathless, as if to remind me that it would be silly to think they had somehow solved themselves and disappeared.
I’m in debt. It was I choice I made when I decided to pursue my education. Going to college was, for me, merely a question of when and where. School was the only thing I was truly good at, the only skill I seemed to have developed. So as an undergraduate, I took out loans to cover my room and board (I was blessed with a full-tuition scholarship; I’m not sure how I could have possibly managed without it); as a graduate student, I took out even more. I justified the large amounts to myself, saying that you can’t put a price on knowledge, academics, and a good education. And maybe I couldn’t put a price on it, but the federal government could and did.
We live in a society where education is “valued” but is not “invaluable.” We are told that we need it, we need that piece of paper saying that we passed the tests and wrote the papers. We need the degree that somehow means we have achieved an expertise in something. We need to borrow thousands and thousands of dollars for an education, only to be sent out into the world and be told that there aren’t enough jobs and we don’t have enough experience. In the end, we didn’t need it, we shouldn’t have wanted it, and a piece of paper is just a piece of paper. And while we scramble trying to make it work, the government comes calling, and that priceless education is now given a monetary value that is expected to come out of my minimum wage, part-time paychecks. Its kind of cute really.
What isn’t cute? The horrid feeling of dread that I can’t seem to shake. The deep acknowledgement that at some point over the last six years I must have made a mistake: I picked the wrong major, I picked the wrong school, I picked the wrong career path, or perhaps I didn’t really pick a career path at all. I walk around and feel as if I am drowning and know there is absolutely nothing that anyone can do to fix any of it. That even I, to some extent, can’t undo or erase or change it. No matter how many tears I cry or nights I go without sleep, the debt is going to keep following me. It’s a chain wrapped around me and there is no key.
The hardest choice I ever made was deciding to walk away from graduate school without finishing. I completed my first year, loved every moment spent in the classrooms, at the library, and in front of my laptop. I learned so much and wasn’t even close to knowing it all. But I was an out of state student without a teaching assistantship, which meant more loans. My first year as a grad student doubled what I had already taken out in school loans. A second year would triple it. For two weeks I was beside myself. I wanted that degree. I wanted my Master’s in history, because I was damn good at what I did. I deserved that degree; I was worthy of it. But the cost was too high. And I had to sit down, for the first time in my entire life, and decide whether or not my education was worth it.
It wasn’t a choice I should have had to make. No one should have to. Education should never be the thing we have to sacrifice. We shouldn’t look at it like an indulgence or guilty-pleasure. I shouldn’t be made to regret the time, effort, and money I put into bettering my mind with the intention of bettering someone else’s. It saddens me that the society we live in would rather make money than educate the future generations. It would toss education aside as something extra, without real value or purpose. Knowing that I live in a place where my desire to learn will cost me my peace of mind and get me ridiculed leaves me heart-broken. And honestly? I’m finished.
So, society, I’m calling you out. You want an entire generation of adults that has to give up their dreams of higher education to slave away at minimum wage jobs to pay off loans or to simply survive in this world? You got it. So what are you going to do when we forget how valuable an education is? What are you going to do when the leaders of your country could barely afford an associate’s degree at a community college? What are you going to do when our education system continues to embarrass us on a global scale? What are going to do when we stop reading books and forget how to write? What are you going to do when there is nothing left, when the brightest minds to come along in the last century are told that their knowledge, creativity, and gifts are meaningless and useless? When you become a joke, a laughingstock, an embarrassment to the history of mankind, remember that you told me working in retail was a better use of my mind than going to graduate school. Remember that you made my choice for me, and you have no one to blame but yourself.
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