Wednesday, November 16, 2011

My Life with Sallie Mae: A Nightmare in the Making

It is time for me to recede. Like the puddle of dog piss slowly trickling from the garbage bag it once marked, slowly receding into the middle of your path, that perfect center of the sidewalk where both lanes of traffic flow are interrupted by this obnoxious leak of piss everyone has to jump over. . .I want to be that receding piss stream. And I want the garbage bag to be my enormous student loan debt. I know what you're thinking, Wah! Another failed art school grad bitching ten years later about how their dreams didn't add up and now they don't want to pay for it!   YES! That is correct! But, there's more to it. I grew up in the 80s during that whole self-esteem movement where our parents told us we could be anything, but didn't finish the sentence. You can be anything, Johnny. . .but you might not. You might just be "something". . . possibly nothing. . .or maybe the sum of your potential without any realized success...or you might just be an asshole with an enormous debt and a useless art degree because you didn't do what real artists do, which is hold up a giant middle finger to society and create from within, without validation. You can be anything if you own your art, show up for yourself, and don't sign away your first born to a private education institution so they can tell you you're work is riddled with cliches but fresh. . .oh, and signing a private loan for $40,000 at 18 years old is never a good idea. . .same as a lower back tattoo.  Where was the end of that fucking sentence?! Here's my situation. 

At the end of my freshman year of college ( a private college that gave me an enormous amount of grants and scholarships), a year that involves about six-eight months where I have no memory due to a traumatic event (You can read about that here), I actually got into NYU's Tisch School of the Arts for Dramatic Writing. I submitted a one act play I had produced by the Blank Theatre Company, and I got in to this elite program. I had to go. I mean, this meant I was the best, right? The cream of the crop, right? I broke the news to my father who knew I had to transfer to NYU but also didn't know how we were going to pay for it. Luckily, NYU offered me quite a bit of financial aid in the form of grants, scholarships and subsidized Stafford Loans. Once my bags were packed, I got a letter from them a few weeks before moving East informing me that some forms had been "filled out wrong" and they were taking back some of the financial aid package they offered. Considering my father had lost his business and was in severe financial hardship all throughout my high school years and that I came from a single parent home, I was pretty shocked to learn I suddenly did not qualify. I was going to have to take out unsubsidized loans. In truth, NYU was accepting kickbacks from Sallie Mae who they advertised as their preferred lender despite their predatory lending practices. In every sense of the word, it was more profitable to them to offer me a loan. 

My 2nd and 3rd year of college, my father and I both took out loans to split the outrageous cost. But we justified it because this was my future. This was an investment in me. I already had a play produced at 17 years old. I was on the road to international fame! And then 9/11 happened and all those options out there, all those oysters at are feet, became smaller. America changed. The world changed. The future changed. (You can read about that day in my life here) After months of devastation and terror in New York City, I left the country to study abroad for a semester, (and even there I held a job), I worked all through out college (sometimes as many as three jobs), but my student loan debt was still manageable with the grants and splitting the loans I had taken out. But three weeks before my senior year,  NYU and my dad informed me I needed to find the money to finish out my senior year. So, while working at a summer camp in Vermont, I contacted Sallie Mae from the telephone room of our old manor house summer camp offices which was really a converted coat closet. I quickly signed my life away for a $35,000 loan in between teaching eight year-olds how to canoe and keeping a watchful eye on a couple of my fifteen year-old campers who were trying to score some cigarettes. 

I read the papers. I signed. I faxed. Did I understand what I was signing up for? Absolutely not. I worked full time my senior year of college and lined up two jobs right out of college. I even turned down a job I was offered six months shy of my graduation because I felt it was important to get that degree. Then a month before I graduated, we invaded Iraq. You know the rest of that story. I can remember marching in a protest down Broadway and feeling so confused, angry, but also totally naive. But the day I graduated I felt awesome. I was leaving school with the Senior Achievement Award and the Founders Day Award, a couple short films and short plays produced. But what I was really leaving with was over $50,000 in debt and a B.F.A. in writing, about to enter a world that had changed dramatically over the past four years.. 

In my six month grace period (where my repayment had not yet started), I worked at the camp again, then I took off to Europe again with my savings and even there, I got a job. I got stuck in the UK right when the US dollar tanked. I quickly ran out of money and came home. Since I came home in December 2003, I have had a job. I made cold calls, I hustled and hit the ground running. I worked demoralizing jobs, and low-paying entry level jobs, most of the time. As long as I was working, I didn't really care. 

In 2005, I raised money and took about six weeks off to shoot a documentary and within a week of coming home, I signed up for 5 temp agencies and worked consistently. Other than the documentary, I can honestly (and very gratefully) say that the longest stint I have been unemployed was for three weeks when I moved from LA to Jersey in 2008. I have never had to apply for unemployment. I have never missed a student loan payment (except for when I deferred during the doc). I pay all my bills, I bust my ass, I pay more than the minimum payments...and still that mountain of debt has barely moved. 

Everyone says Can't you consolidate? I did...with the loans I could. Herein lies the rub: You can't consolidate a private loan. I did not know this when I signed. I have tried every plan in the book to lower payments-extended the life of paying back the loan (I think I'm on the 20 year plan now), paid interest only payments for a couple years, talked, negotiated, pleaded and nothing has helped. I finally accepted that my adult life would no longer be just about me finding myself. There would always be me and my debt. Me and Sallie Mae traveling through life one financial road block at a time. 

What are my payments like now? About $500 a month. What do I have left to pay? Over $36,000. (Plus some minor debt from credit cards.)  If I do not miss a payment and my variable interest rate does not rise with our toilet of an economy, that schedules me to be done by 2019/2020...with a big fat IF looming all over that. I work a full time job and 2-3 freelance jobs at any given moment. So if I can keep this up for the next decade and life can promise me no hiccups, I'll pay it off! Oh but wait, I'd like to have children and a life. Scratch that.

Here's the thing, I know this is my responsibility. And I don't regret choosing to go to school at NYU. Moving to New York changed my life. At the time, I saw that life, that loan as a way to get out.  (You can read about that, here)  I signed those papers. But I think it should have been illegal for me to sign those papers, especially in pursuit of an art degree. Especially with no credit. Especially without an adult or a lawyer! If I was becoming a doctor, maybe this would have been okay. Do I think I got tricked by NYU? Yes. Do I think Sallie Mae was in cahoots with NYU? Yes. Do I think the whole student loan debt crisis was fueled by predatory lending practices on young adults who really were still just teenagers? Fuck Yeah. And as petty as this may sound, we bailed out the banks. We bailed out the same fucking people who got us into this mess. What about the students?

Here's where I tell you that I have finally paid off one on my credit cards! (Hence the picture) Here's where I tell you, I'm close to paying off a second. But in terms of this rain cloud of debt, how do I become the piss stream that recedes from the garbage? How do I fast-forward the clean up of that sidewalk? How do I get ahead when I'm busting my ass just to stay afloat. Poor me, right? I know, I know...Me and the rest of the country!


Anonymous said...

There was an Eddie Izzard routine years ago about growing up in England post-Empire. I think we're entering that age, and I hate that. I don't hate that we aren't the superpower of the world, but that shooting for the stars is becoming shoot for that semi-steep hill that's a bit tall but nothing fancy. The climb won't leave you out of breath or anything.

I want my future children to reach for the stars. I want to set the bar higher. I want that back.

Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione said...

I do, too! I tutor a fifteen year old who is working on an essay where she had to discuss if we are currently living in a revolutionary time and her answer was no. Like the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, like the fall of the British Empire, this is our fall. It made me even more sad for her generation. I don't know which is worse: growing up with no hope of a bright tomorrow or having the rug pulled out beneath you.

TangledLou said...

Thank you for so eloquently writing about where so many of us have ended up. Sallie Mae & her pals have lived with me for the last 14 years and will continue to for long into the future. A whole generation whose future didn't make good on its promise.

Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione said...

Thanks for commenting and I'm sorry about your 14 year relationship with Sallie Mae! Awful. I'm entering year 9 and sometimes it just breaks me. That number can zap hope like nothing else. Keep fighting the good fight. Something has to change.

Anonymous said...

That was the most enlighteningly depressing, heart wrenching thing I've read in a long time. I'm glad I read it. In one post, you managed to change my whole world view. I guess I'm back to encouraging my daughter to become a doctor or a lawyer. UGH! She's very smart, but her genius lies in much more creative pursuits. *sigh* Much to think about.

I managed to avoid the whole student loan debt by not going to college (much). The very idea of sending children to college now, in this context, gives me the heebie jeebies.

Anyway, thanks for posting.

Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione said...

Thanks for reading! It's tough because everyone's path is different and of course you want to encourage your children to follow your dream. But it is really hard to make those artistic dreams come true, to live a free life open to possibilities and inspiration when you got those student loan handcuffs around your wrist! But its not the case with everyone. Good luck to you both! I feel like right now, I really like the Australians & Kiwis and Europeans idea of the GAP years when their kids going traveling for a couple years after high school. See the world, think about their place in it and then go to school with a bigger picture in mind.

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Anonymous said...

I think its sill you de ted post offering any other point then your own. What a pity party your wanting to throw for yourself and trying to make yourself seem like some your offering some different road for enlightenment or something and eandong other pals views on thebsituation when apparently your oNly interested in how hard hinge are for you.

Adrian said...

This was a great article - we all have debts of some kind and it was refreshing to see how you write about it in such a familiar way. Good luck with everything!