Friday, October 14, 2011

My statement

A picture of an unidentified person with no face, a skinny midriff and very large hands was all over Facebook yesterday.  He/she was holding up a sign that offered some pungent commentary on what he/she apparently believed to be the tone (I know, there aren't any goals) of the Occupy Wall Street movement. After thinking about that sign for over 24 hours, I've decided to offer a counter-commentary that describes my own experiences. Please note that I am not claiming to be more virtuous than the sign-holder, and that I am probably 33 years older. When I entered Oberlin in 1973, the cost of a year's tuition, room, board and fees was a little over $5000. They no longer have a "need-blind" admission policy, and I probably couldn't afford to send my own kids there now. Money market funds haven't paid double-digit interest for longer than most college students have been alive. I am downwardly mobile. Nevertheless, I am what I am.

I am a college senior, about to graduate completely debt free.

That's very good. I graduated from college debt free as well. My story is a little different, though, as you'll see.

I pay for all of my living expenses by working 30+ hrs a week making barely above minimum wage.

When I was in graduate school, I had a fellowship that paid a living stipend. It stipulated that I could not hold any other employment while receiving the fellowship. There was a reason for that. Colleges want their students to be focused on their studies. Having taught college now for most of my adult life, I can assure you that this was a good idea. If I had a full-time student who was working 30 hours a week outside of class, I would strongly advise him/her to cut back on work or attend school only part-time. The number of students I have had who can really do well in college while working that many hours is minuscule.

I chose a moderately priced, in-state public university & started saving $ for school at age 17.

17 was the age at which I started college. I went to an expensive private college because I knew my parents could afford it. (They told me so.) I had savings, but it was only because my family had been giving me checks to hoard away for college for years. My family was in pretty good shape financially, and that strongly influenced some of my other decisions, as described below. 

I got decent grades in high school & received 2 scholarships which cover 90% of my tuition.

I got excellent grades in high school. However, I was not eligible for financial aid at Oberlin because of their "need-blind" admission policy, which guaranteed that any student they admitted would receive as much financial aid as he or she needed. Since I didn't need financial aid, I wasn't eligible to receive it.

Here's something else I want you to think about. I turned down the chance for a national merit scholarship. I was a finalist, so I could have applied. I understood, though, that the national merit program was designed to help people pay for college who couldn't have afforded it otherwise. It never even occurred to me that someone in my position might apply. Simply having qualified as a finalist was distinction enough.

I currently have a 3.8 GPA.

I honestly don't remember what my GPA was in college, although I know it got better with each passing year. As a freshman I didn't get the kind of grades I had hoped for, largely because I entered with a semester's worth of AP credit (which allowed me to graduate early, saving my parents some money) and took all sophomore- and junior-level classes that year.

Since I've started teaching college, I've learned to be a bit suspicious of students who boast about their GPAs. The students I know who have the highest ones are usually the ones who play it safe, taking only classes they know they will do well in and avoiding exposing themselves to new ideas. I know this is a big generalization. I've also taught students who graduated with 4.0 GPAs who were truly brilliant. I have to say, though, that you sound more like a risk avoider to me.

I live comfortably in a cheap apt, knowing I can’t have everything I want. I don’t eat out every day or even once a month. I have no credit card, new car, iPad or smart phone – and I’m perfectly ok with that.

One of the apartments that I lived in as a student had a floor on which you could place a marble and watch it roll to the other side of the room. I learned to cook for myself to save money. Students couldn't get credit cards in those days; I didn't have one until I was 28. I also didn't have a car until I was 27. Up until then, when I wanted to go anywhere, I walked, or took the bus or train. Students at my college who lived on campus (which almost everybody did) weren't even allowed to have cars. In other words, I'm with you on this one—and then some.

If I did have debt, I would not blame Wall St or the government for my own bad decisions.

I did have significant student loan debt by the time I finished graduate school, although it was probably nothing by today's standards. I didn't blame anybody for it. In fact, when I got my loan check at the beginning of each year, I put it in a money market fund, which at that time allowed me to earn 17 or 18% interest.

I remember having a discussion with another graduate student who told me that he knew people who were doing the same thing and spending their earnings on stereo equipment. I assured him that the only thing I intended to earn from my investment was enough money to finish graduate school. I'm sorry you didn't have that opportunity. At that point, investment firms were still interested in helping people with limited means.

I live below my means to continue saving for the future.

Ah, so do I. However, I didn't expect my wife to go deaf in her 40s and have to stop working. I also didn't expect her loss of employment to be accompanied by medical expenses that nearly bankrupted us. That's the way life is. You try to plan for the future, but it has a tendency to blindside you.

I expect nothing to be handed to me, and will continue to work my @$$ off for everything I have.
That’s how it’s supposed to work.

See above. Until you actually fail at something, you will likely continue to carry around a severe compassion deficit that could make it difficult or impossible for you to sympathize with the difficulties that others experience. This is likely to poison your relationships with loved ones and coworkers. The best thing that could happen to you would be to have to spend a year or two un- or under-employed (I spent six), looking for work and unable to find it. You will emerge from the experience a much stronger person and a much happier one.

I am NOT the 99% and whether or not you are is YOUR decision.

Well, actually, it was my decision not to pursue a career that could put me in the top 1% of wage-earners in our society. Instead, I chose one that would allow me to give back to society with the skills that God gave me, and to do something deeply meaningful with my life. So I am definitely part of the bottom 99% of wage earners, and that was the best decision I've ever made. You, of course, are in the bottom 99% as well. Given that you could have invested all of your savings in an effort to win the lottery instead of going to college, that was probably a very good decision on your part too.

OK, that's pretty much it. I am still trying to make up my mind whether that was a real person in the picture (the absence of a face is kind of suspicious), and not a Koch brothers plant. Assuming that it is, though, all I'm trying to say here is that I'm a real person too, warts and all. I didn't do it all myself (nobody does). I have no desire to get rich. Life has thrown me some major curveballs. Most of the time I don't complain; some of the time I do, just like everybody else I've ever known.

I am the 99%.


  1. as always, very thoughtful and well expressed. thank you for giving us all something to think about, Robin.

  2. I'm going to share this link with several friends who posted the pic. Thanks for the thoughtful post, and keep healing, Robin.

  3. Actually, I don't believe the facebook person. Not that I don't believe such a person exists, but I don't believe the person described is the person who posted it. This narrative reminds me of "Joe the plumber," who was neither.

    In any event, the person described *is* the 99%, since they are clearly not in the top 1% of income. Whether they are philosophically aligned with the Wall St. occupation doesn't matter. The 99% is a demographic, not a philosophy.

  4. Thanks for this post. I also reacted to it, though not with quite the same calm you did - . I was just Googling the phrases this 'person' shared. I wanted to see if I could figure out how many times it (the original) was actually re-posted on FB. Any idea?

  5. Thanks for sharing that. A lot of people seem to have realized that the math just doesn't add up, but it helps to have it spelled out this way.

    As for how many times it's been shared, I couldn't even begin to guess, but given the number of people who seem to have noticed it, I imagine tens of thousands of times by now. What I'm really curious to know is whether this is actually a real person, or whether, as I increasingly suspect, it was just somebody pretending to be a college student. My money is on the latter.