If You Knew Where I’d Been

If You Knew Where I'd Been

A lot of people, especially my much younger friends, see where I am in my life now and assume everything I have was handed to me or that it was easy. They have NO idea. I have relatives who give me hell over being debt-free except my home but they’re able-bodied and have never held a job in any of the years when I routinely worked 100 hours a week, sometimes 60 of which was as a volunteer. They didn’t sit home watching tabloid TV for lack of employment opportunities but for lack of work ethic.

This is “almost” a picture of my first home after college. I say “almost” because my real home across the street surely fell in years ago.

In early October of my senior year of college, the day before tuition was due, my scholarship was cancelled supposedly due to funding cuts, which meant I couldn’t be reimbursed for the tuition I’d already paid up front. Not my fault–I was an A student who rarely carried less than 18 hours a quarter, usually a total of 6 classes. My hours at my job as an English tutor had also been cut by one third because they’d hired a bunch of new and inexperienced tutors, but I’d been given new requirements that meant I needed to put in one third extra hours of reading and reports unpaid: not a problem for most of the new tutors who needed the training, but I was by far the most popular and always had a full schedule when I was there and never had downtime to do the training I already knew. The much-adored employers at my second job had had to let me go due to the economic downturn–their newest restaurant was failing and their new oven had melted half the wall on opening night. The only other employee stayed on because she had seniority but the restaurant closed soon after, permanently. At this point, I was already a month into the quarter, had bought my books, had paid the tuition that my scholarship was to reimburse, and had paid the rent. With coupons and careful shopping, a $5 bill would buy a jug of the cheapest milk, a loaf of the cheapest bread, a big can of tuna, box of Froot Loops, and maybe a carton of eggs in lieu of tuna; between that and free appetizers and cheap cola at the local bars, I could easily keep my weight at my usual 105 pounds for the entire week. The rest of my college expenses were paid by my parents, cash-flowed, but those were really difficult years for the family business.

Because I always took as many classes as I could fit into a term, I was 1 class from graduating. It was a required course, taught only in the spring of the year, and meant to be taken last. I couldn’t take it until the next calendar year. With my income down, the scholarship that had paid most of my tuition gone, and parent’s income non-existent that year due to dry weather on the farm, I made the hard decision to leave college without graduating that quarter. There just wasn’t any money, and I couldn’t qualify for a grant unless my parents sold the land they farmed. I went to the dean and begged–BEGGED– him to let me substitute a much harder elective I’d already taken instead of the easy last mandatory class. He could’ve been an ass about it but he reluctantly and angrily finally agreed. I’ve always been grateful to him for that. I could graduate, but of course, the day to declare my intent to graduate that quarter had just passed, so I’d have to wait until another 6 months to have my degree in hand…which meant no big girl job for another 6 months at least. I went to the administration office and filed withdrawal papers that day–the last day to do so. I had my receipt, dated and signed, which was fortunate because the college tried to deny my tuition refund based on filing too late and I spent several months fighting them to prove that they’d held my paperwork and I was rightfully owed money. (People wonder why I never donate to my alma mater; this was one of several reasons, all involving squeezing money out of a student with little recourse.)

I had a steady boyfriend living in Florida so I moved to his hometown to be near him and took a part-time job with lots of promises for the future that were no more than promises. It was the worst job market since the end of World War II, and the previous cycle of the current economic cycle. Unless you were an engineer, there were no decent jobs, and the engineers who found jobs could expect to worked like dogs for the privilege of having a job. I had lots of leads, the best being teaching basic English at a local community college as soon as I had my degree in hand, but due to a mix-up between college administrators, that job was given to their second choice, a big disappointment for both me and for the administrator who’d interviewed me and wanted to hire me. (Unbelievably, my paperwork was sent to the wrong Dr. [same last name] for approval, or I’d probably be teaching English literature today as I’d planned when I left college.) The job market was nearly impossible. The best I could do was on-call receptionist work while I waited for something better to open up, and most potential employers shrugged me off as overqualified and likely to quit before they could train me because surely someone would pay me much more as soon as something opened up. It never did. My temporary work went from near full-time (meaning no benefits) to two days per pay period, and that meant starving. I could no longer afford the rent in my ancient mobile home with the dirt streets leading to the paved street full of pot holes that are still there. This was a far cry from all those college placement pro’s telling me how much I was going to make when I graduated, based on my grades and extensive college resume! My boyfriend had a steady job but absolutely no concrete plans for the future that included me, so…distraught and broke…I left, moved back into my old room in my parents’ house, worked full-time in a hometown agribusiness for one-fourth of what that placement office had said I should be making, started writing and studying the stock market, and enrolled in graduate school. I’d been back home a couple of months when my noncommittal boyfriend decided he might want to get married after all. Guess he missed me.

Within two years, I was engaged to my long-time boyfriend and moving back Florida to be his wife. I moved into a mobile home–almost identical to the one in the photo except in not as good shape–in the same trailer park and took a job that was, again, a lie. The Vice-President of Finance wanted to get rid of a particular employee so he hired me to take her job. Only he didn’t tell her and didn’t have the balls to fire her. How embarrassing when she befriended me on Day One and I told her my new job title! So the boss temporarily stuck me in a job as his secretary, and a secretary to 13 other people in the office, including snarky accountants my age who looked down on secretaries. The promised job position never happened, and the pay that went with it was reordered to befitting a secretary instead of the Director of Personnel.

But things were happening.

My new husband and I finally were able to move into our first house, so small at 1100 square feet that we called it “The Dollhouse.” While we were away on our honeymoon, the financial arrangement changed (I won’t give details but it was something I’m told is now illegal) and we suddenly owed thousands of dollars more than expected, so we put about $15,000 on a credit card to keep from losing the house and the money we’d already put up. That was in addition to the mortgage. But we had moved up. Or at least, we had moved out of the trailer park.

I had my degree and was working on a new graduate degree in Public Administration and contracting when I finally was able to leave a series of deadend jobs in a horrible economy, and I started my first year of a 3-year internship with the Department of Defense at $14,822 a year. In three years, I progressed from a GS-5 intern to a GS-11, and was a GS-12 in another year with a Contracting Offier’s warrant to sign contracts on behalf of the U.S. Government. By then, I could breathe better financially, had started a family, had a big house, a couple of side businesses, and a writing career I didn’t have much time for. That wasn’t the end of working hard. Not by a long shot. I’ll let you know when THAT happens.

But I was out of the trailer park and into the material phase of my life where most people know me now. Most people who know me now have no idea of the early struggles, especially the ones in their early 20’s. They see me shake my head in disgust and think I’m intolerant when they tell me they’re too good to flip burgers or sweep floors and that they deserve what I have now.

Perhaps I’ll be more tolerant when I stop working as hard.