Catching a Break After Years of Barely Making Ends Meet
by Heather Ryan
When I was eleven, I frequently dreamt that my parents won the lottery. This was despite the fact they rarely played, because we didn’t have money for “that kind of crap,” as my dad would say. Still, they bought tickets every now and then, usually when the jackpot was extraordinarily high, or when I pestered my mom (she was an easier sell than Dad). I didn’t have specific ideas about what we’d do with the money, aside from imagining the countless pairs of Guess jeans I’d get, thus finally ending Jamie Carnegie’s queen-bee-fueled reign of terror over me for my off-brand wardrobe.
What I remember feeling was that if we could just manage to win the lottery — if one night Fate would choose the correct numbered balls to pop into the announcer’s hands — that the world would suddenly right itself; that the stress I felt in the house during the end of the month would dissipate; that shoes and clothes and food would appear when they were needed, and not after my parents’ hemming and hawing over what bill could be put off to afford the basics. I knew the odds were infinitesimal, but I still watched the numbers being drawn with the kind of hope only an 11-year-old can sustain.
In the academic world, the equivalent of the winning lottery ticket is a tenure-track job. That’s because most professors are now adjuncts, or what I call the coal miners of academia. We work for lower pay, often without benefits, and with little to no guarantee of classes.
For the last seven years, I’ve been an adjunct professor of writing at three different institutions, while raising three kids mostly on my own. At the University of Oregon, that meant an annual, full-time salary of $27,000, though they offered me great benefits. At other schools, my salary ranged from $2,000/class to $4,000/class, though my cap was typically four or five classes a year, and never any work in the summer. This meant many summers (which would sometimes stretch to fall) on food stamps supplemented with a few trips to the food bank. It meant shopping at Goodwill, borrowing money from my mom or brother, floating checks, free lunch applications, payday loans. It also meant that I relied on friends for non-monetary help, too: picking up my kids from theater or chess, or getting groceries after I had back surgery, or just letting me vent and worry aloud about how hard it was to make ends meet.
These same friends started to send freelance jobs my way when they could, which meant that eventually, I was able to get enough freelance work to sustain us through the summers, and then to augment my income all year. Over the most recent summers, I was able to keep us off food stamps, entirely.
And every year, around the same time, I’d apply for tenure-track jobs with the kind of hope I had previously reserved for lottery tickets. I knew the odds were thin — especially for me, the single parent with an MFA in Creative Writing and no published book. I imagined what it would be like if I ever managed to land such a job. I would have a reliable car that didn’t squeal in cold weather, one that I wouldn’t have to sell to make rent. I’d pay my electric bill when it was due. I’d be able to walk into a grocery store and put anything in the cart I wanted without having to consider the price. I’d be able to buy new shoes for my son Ivan the same day he told me his no longer fit. Hell, I imagined in this new tenure-track world, my couch pillows would match and maybe my kids would stop arguing over the remote. Every year I applied, and every year I’d be passed over.
Except for this year.
This year, I was invited to three different schools for interviews. A week after my first interview, the school called. Because the cell service is so bad in my neighborhood, I had to let the call go to voicemail, slip on some sandals, and race to the upscale grocery store half a mile away before calling back. The vice president’s tone on the voicemail was impossible to read, but when I called her back, I knew the moment I heard her voice. The job was mine if I wanted it.
After she hung up, I put my hand over my mouth and cried in relief. People walked by with bags of kale and organic strawberries, and stared. And I pretty much didn’t care.
Six months ago, I would have told you the story ended there. I had slayed the dragon, or at least got it to agree to hire me permanently, and at a higher rate with better benefits. The life I imagined in the new tiny town was airy and pastoral (and has, you know, matching pillows). But as I pack and prepare, this nagging feeling won’t leave me — I know better than to believe that there is some magic in full-time, permanent work that’s going to remove financial worry from my life at all. In reality, these are the facts: I have $96,000 in student loan debt, $4,500 in credit card debt, and $7,900 owed on my car. I’ve been raising three kids on about $40,000 a year — a salary I’ve had to scrape and piece together with freelancing gigs and adjuncting. I get $752 a month in child support. My income is going up to almost $52,000 a year, which isn’t small. At the same time, I still hold on to the idea that this job is a turning point, a way to remove some of the financial stress I’ve had to cope with over the last seven years.
But that additional $12,000 is not going to buy me the kind of freedom from financial worry that I’d once associated with a tenure-track job, the way the 11-year old me in Central California once dreamt the lottery would.
This is the first essay in a multi-part series.
Heather Ryan earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon in 2006. Her non-fiction has appeared on NPR and Salon among others, and her fiction is forthcoming in the Southern Humanities Review. The first issue of her graphic novel The Imaginarium — about what happens when a teenage boy descends into the dark, fairy-tale world of schizophrenia — is forthcoming in summer 2014. She’s currently finishing her memoir Now Entering America, about a failed road trip and life as a single parent and writer. She starts her new job teaching at a small community college in Washington state in the fall.
Photo: Nicole Ramagna