Robyn Ashley Schleihauf
What's the point?
It feels so futile, doesn’t it? The unspeakable cruelty of bureaucracy, the faceless institutional decision-making, the refusal of the decision-makers to face the people whose decisions have been made for them and thus, the predictable failure to grasp the outcomes of the decisions. The service model runs so tight that the individuals trying to squeeze through get bottlenecked, stack on top of one another, as their concerns are dealt with one at a time, as if they were separate events and not one the result of one whole broken machine.
Then you think about the fact that so many people have come before you, and tried to move the monument that the bureaucracy is housed in as well. They’ve tried to chip away at it, to erode some of its etchings, to paint a brighter picture but still there is nowhere for the run off to go, the dust and chalky paint lying on the ground beneath the monument, slowly creating a slippery hill that the ones after them will have to try to stand on while they do their chipping.
It starts simply. A bureaucrat at the university slams a 1000 page tome on her desk and looks at you pointedly. She tells you that you should have budgeted better. You spent the summer working day shifts Monday to Friday at a call center, answering call after call of screaming American cell phone customer. Your boyfriend was good at it, he got 4 marriage proposals over the phone that summer. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, you went to a bar and waitressed. It was busier than you were used to from the diner where you first got your serving chops, and you always feel behind. The shifts are stressful and you often get home around 1am, only to sleep for a few hours and get up for the call centre again.
You’re not sure where you could have done better. You’re sharing a room in a house with 5 other people and your rent is only $225 per month, but the oil heating has kicked in, adding another couple hundred dollars onto each month that you hadn’t anticipated. It’s the first apartment you’ve ever rented. You’ve also just bought your books, which cost over $700. Add that to the $1000 deposit for tuition for the year while the remaining $4000 accrues interest, and you feel desperate. That’s why you’ve come to the Financial Aid office to begin with. You’re two months into the semester and it’s become clear you cannot afford to go on like this. You’ve found a job at a retail clothing store, where you’re working 40 hours per week, on top of full-time classes. You’re smoking a lot more weed than you ever have, numbing the dull thrum of stress that sits constant at the top of your spine, where the base of your skull connects, before it moves over the top of your brain, between your skull and your scalp.
The book she has handed you is how to appeal the denial of student loan funding. You want to ask how you go about the appeal, because you’re not sure when you’ll have the time to comb through this book, given that you haven’t had time to read through what is required for your courses. You don’t ask her, because you’re already crying, choking back sobs at the weight of her judgement, the weight of her look that says that if you were just better with your money, this would all be very, very simple, but you are greedy and unwise, undeserving of a break. It’s a heavy mantle at 20 years old, but not as heavy as many others you know wear.
You appeal the denial of the student loan funding and are approved, and just before Christmas you are able to pay the balance of your tuition, which empties you out again and leaves you just as desperate as before. You pick up extra shifts at work. You drink black coffee until you want to vomit. You realize as the semester closes that it would have been better if you had only paid a little of your tuition and left yourself some wiggle room with the rest of the money, to pay rent, and for that heating bill that relentlessly climbs in the depth of the Kingston, Ontario winter. You finish out the semester having failed a class and with a GPA low enough that you have also failed out of your program.
They’ll allow you back the next year. In the spring you get a job waitressing and it pulls in big cash. You work double shifts, closing the restaurant and putting up the heavy wooden chairs before coming back in the morning and taking them down again, placing them on the mopped floors. You move out of the house with 5 roommates and into a much cheaper place with two close friends. There are three halfway houses on your street and that summer a tent city pops up in the alley between a busy street and your quieter residential one. People defecate into buckets and you save them the indignity of looking. You give people cigarettes and money from your apron that has a Guinness logo on it. Life is much easier for you there. You realize slowly that you value a quiet house, one that feels like home. Your room has orange shag carpeting, stained and faded in some spots.
You leave and eventually you move to Halifax. You are depressed but you don’t know it until, 4 years later, when you cry every day until you have to go to work. You breathe deeply and try to hold your hand steady as you paint your eyelashes with mascara. You fake your way through your shift waitressing before coming home, drunk, and you sob yourself to sleep. You get an appointment with your doctor when you finally realize you don’t care if you’re alive anymore. She is calm as you tell her you’re not functioning; you cannot go on like this. You tell her you hate the idea of it, but you’re willing to take antidepressants if that’s what it takes. Anything to not have to go on like this. It’s unbearable. It’s your second time ever seeing her. She tells you that you have situational depression and recommends you read a dense book that teaches cognitive behavioural therapy. You buy it and read its 500 pages. Slowly but surely you learn more about yourself and it patches you up enough to make you realize you likely have to change your situation in order to fully get out of this depression. You work hard for two years, taking classes, taking the LSAT, and volunteering so that you can get into law school, all the while working full time, carrying trays full of pints and wandering away from tables, wondering whether you should have laughed off that particular joke about your legs. You get an early acceptance to one of the most reputable schools in the country. Your letter comes in February.
In August, the school sends you a letter telling you that they need a $10,000 deposit in order to hold your spot. You request that they allow you to defer that amount until you get your first student loan instalment from the government. You cannot apply for a private bank loan until the school year has started but they tell you that everyone gets approved. The law school has a deal with that particular bank. You trust that, because you have to, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to go. The first tuition instalment will completely wipe out the government student loan. The student financial aid officer denies your request to defer the deposit. She tells you, in an email where her response includes sentences in all caps, that you will have to ask your family for money. You rail and cry at the unfairness of this system. You are fortunate enough to now have a wealthy sister. You are furious that if you did not have her, you would not be able to go.
Later, you will find out that the bank will not be giving you anything. Your credit is not good enough and there is no one you know who can co-sign a $10,000 loan. Your wealthy sister lives in the United States and they will not allow her to do it. You go through first year extraordinarily broke. Luckily, you meet someone who knows a woman who needs a house-sitter. Just like that, it starts to work out. Without a small bursary from the law school, which you do not find out you are receiving until second semester of the school year, and so it cannot form part of your budget and is therefore not intended be relied on, you would have been fucked.
You go to a meeting about bursaries at the school. There are a number of people there who are even angrier than you are. There is a subjective portion of the bursary application, which essentially asks students to disclose any trauma they may have suffered. It tunes you into the fact that the school is looking for a story to justify the funds. They want them to go to the deserving poor. The deserving poor are those whose stories the school can exploit in the name of social justice. The school does not seem to have made an allowance for the fact that at $25,000 per year tuition, it has priced out pretty much anyone who does not come from extraordinary wealth and there are many more people applying for the bursaries now and in need of aid.
You continue through law school and it’s excruciating. You finally finish and are working. Your loan repayments begin and it occurs to you that you’re 32 years old and you might never not live in a basement apartment, even though you’re a lawyer now. Your clothes are ridiculous and you have too few business appropriate pieces to make it week after week in the office. You spend some money trying to look like a lawyer. You are conscious of feeling like a fraud. Your colleagues talk about their cars and homes, partners and children. You are exhausted. You are drowning in debt. You eventually get a salaried job, making the most money you’ve ever made. Your loan repayments are $1400 per month. Between that and rent, you’re spending 3/4 of your income on debt repayment and rent alone. You’re broker than you ever were waitressing.
You fall into a depression again, admonishing yourself daily for having been so foolish to have wanted something so expensive. You should have known better. You try to posture at work. You worry you come across as brash and unsophisticated. You wonder if you should try to waitress again on the weekends. You feel badly that you cannot bear the thought of the façade of wellness that comfortable wealth is supposed to provide falling off of you.
But that’s where absurdism trounces in, a Trojan horse slid into the middle of things, its guts filled with the great vastness of life, the expanse of the universe and the absolutely inconsequential effect of a title on a desk. You could shake the grasp of polite society. You could, at any point, slide outside of the bounds of what is expected. You can test the universe you are standing in, walk around its cardboard cut-out of the student loans administrator who stands in your way and find out that there’s nothing behind the stone façade of the university administration building. It’s actually just a set, like an old Hollywood cowboy movie. The student loan administrator has a zipper up her back and when you open it, she oozes out, turns out she was a slimy green slug this whole time. You see that her cardboard cut-out mouth is actually woodworked, jaw held together by clever tongue and groove mastery, no nails, no crass glue.
You could still go to the woods and eat acid, jump into a frigid June lake and take stock of the moon, make sure it’s still there. You can still walk up to businessmen on the subway and slap their phone straight out of their hand and recite Ozymandias to them until they walk away, shaking their head derisively.
You could still peel back the thin onion skin paper of reality and scream into the void. You watch the moon rise over the cedar shingled houses across the street from you. You find the ground is still beneath your feet. You ask your now wealthy sister for more money and you join the ranks of the comfortable, knowing you have not earned it.
#queens #osgoodehalllawschool #privilege #bureaucracy #depression