What you might not understand about student debt

For 19 years I worked in college learning centers. One of the colleges was in rural New York, the other in downtown Chicago. Both were small, private schools. Neither was selective. That is, they accepted many applicants who were academically unprepared for higher education. Whether or not the odds for graduation were promising, a Financial Aid Office made sure students could put together enough in loans to pay tuition. 

Some who sought the services of the Learning Center were B students striving for A’s, but most who came struggled academically. Often they were the first in their family to attend college. Because I worked with students individually, I learned of their aspirations and struggles. Most hoped for employment in public education, social services, and the hospitality industry. Women balanced lives as mothers, students, and employees at minimum wage jobs. 

What you might not understand about student debt is that many colleges are small private institutions whose survival depends on student tuition to pay bills. Often this has been a predatory practice, as young men and women who had little chance of graduating were burdened with debt they would likely never be able to repay.

You probably know that our public-school systems, particularly urban ones, are not preparing students for college. Yet college graduates earn more money over a lifetime than non-graduates. This reality preys upon the aspirations of those who dream of someday having a family and home. So why would a young person, even one academically unprepared, NOT choose to attend college? 

For many I worked with, graduating required persistence…and a willingness to accumulate debt.

I feel blessed to have known them and admire them for the contributions they’re making to their communities. As a taxpayer, I am willing to contribute to their debt relief and that of others exploited by a system that never had their interests in mind.

Where’s the liberal church?

Several years ago John Lewis spoke at Montreat (a nearby venue, for readers unfamiliar with our area). Seated together on the front row of the auditorium, a group of elderly ministers were asked to stand. White ministers. Southern ministers. During the tumultuous sixties some of them invited Black speakers to their pulpits; some participated in demonstrations; some preached against denying Blacks the right to vote and use public spaces.

The actions of these ministers were met with fury. They were spit upon, their families threatened. Some were jailed, some fired. 

Oh, that we saw such courage today.

The Gospel has been usurped. People calling themselves “Christians” conflate Jesus and guns. They would have us believe that God hates gays, that God cares more about a pin-sized collection of cells in a woman’s body than for the woman and her family. Until recently ministers proclaimed from the pulpit that God chose Donald Trump to be our president.

What has been the response of many Mainline Protestant congregations? (I hesitate to use the labels “liberal” and “conservative,” but to be clear “liberal” best describes what I’m talking about.) I call the church’s response “Rodney King theology”: Why can’t we all get along? From the pulpit we are admonished to listen to those who disagree with us, to reach out in love. We hear about Jesus’ compassion for the Samaritan woman, his compassion for Zacchaeus, his compassion for the masses. 

Little is said about Jesus’ anger. The best-known example is his overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple. But scripture tells of other times when “he looked around at them with anger.” “Woe to you…” he says over and over in Matthew 23.

Pastor friends, I don’t lay all responsibility for a prophetic witness on you. We all need to speak out—not as politically liberal citizens but as Christians. 

What I need from you is an acknowledgement of the anger and despair I and many are feeling. Prayers and mention of the past week’s disturbing news aren’t enough. Can you not from your public forum name the evil forces of our time and offer guidance on how we can confront them?

The words of an old hymn just came to mind: “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah/ pilgrim through this barren land….Strong Deliverer, be Thou still my strength and shield.”

Watergate and Canned Tomatoes

During the summer of 1973—while I canned fifty quarts of tomatoes, fifty quarts of tomato juice, and twelve pints of catsup (not to mention the green beans and corn)—less than two hundred miles away Men in Power were asking what did Nixon know and when did he know it. Toiling in my narrow kitchen—with its five feet of counter space, a Youngstown metal sink, and an ancient four-burner electric stove—I faithfully followed the Senate Watergate Hearings on a fifteen-inch black and white TV. 

I wanted answers too.

Canners of blue-and-white-speckled enamel occupied two burners; on another a tea kettle maintained a low whistle. On the fourth burner a pan of water boiled. Frequently I’d interrupt the flow of work to wipe my sweating forehead with the tail of my sleeveless blouse. As Tom Daschel posed questions to men who swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I prepared tomatoes for easy pealing, briefly immersing them in the pan of boiling water.

Nixon was in hot water too, and everyone knew him to be a sweating man, even when he sat in the air-conditioned Oval Office, signing his now besmirched name. Had he been in my kitchen the heat would have convinced him he was in hell.

While H.R. Haldeman scalded the truth, I stuffed whole tomatoes into quart Mason jars, which I filled to the top with boiling water from the tea kettle. From a saucepan resting on the sink drain, I lifted sterilized lids, placed them on the jars with tongs, then screwed on the metal rings. The whole country had been screwed.

Both canners held seven jars. After placing a newly filled jar in each slot of a wire rack, I gently lowered the heavy rack into the boiling water bath. Pausing to rest a moment while the stove and canners carried out their responsibilities, I sat at the kitchen table staring at the TV, engrossed in Daniel Inouye’s line of questioning.

The Simple Life, that was the path my husband, Jim, and I had chosen. Self-sufficiency. A quarter of an acre in tomatoes, corn, green beans, and other vegetables, enough quart boxes in our twenty-cubic-foot freezer to feed us until next harvest. Quite an undertaking for a young woman who’d grown up in the city and a young man whose previous gardening experience had been limited to reluctantly weeding alongside his father. We sought advice from other gardeners and read organic gardening magazines, which recommended that we keep records of what we’d planted and when. The simple life, we discovered, was more complicated than anticipated. 

Life was turning out to be complicated for John Dean, as well, who testified for seven hours one day. But he’d kept records, could tell the senators what Nixon and Haldeman and Ehrlichman had said in his presence. Pulling the weeds of deception out by the roots, he was. 

My glasses steamed as I lifted the racks out of the canners. One by one I carried the hot jars to the counter, lining them up on layers of dishtowels, then beginning the process all over again: dipping whole tomatoes in boiling water, putting on lids, lowering jars into the water bath.

Our garden was a political statement, something young people of the 1960s needed to do to declare our disdain for the Establishment. We refused to buy into the capitalist dream, shunning the symbols of affluence and power. That summer everything on my little TV supported our decision. The government was corrupt, and the Watergate hearings were proving it.

Still I was shocked when on a July day, while I was stirring a batch of catsup. Alexander Butterfield testified that Nixon recorded conversations and phone calls. So there was evidence of wrongdoing. To make sure I didn’t miss anything I walked away from the pan to stand beside the TV. By the time I returned to the stove the catsup was sticking to the bottom of the pan, scorched, ruined. 

Jars on my kitchen counter cooled. Every now and then a lid would ping, a sign that the jar had sealed. Two at a time I carried them down the basement steps into a small dark room lined with shelves. Evidence of Jim’s and my success at being self-sufficient.

“Now I’m just a country lawyer,” Sam Erwin said, obviously shrewd in spite of his self-deprecating words. A country lawyer butting heads with urbane fellows acting as if they were above the law. Stepping away from the stove to cool off, sweeping a strand of wet hair from my face, I pictured Erwin as a young man laboring in a garden (though he probably didn’t).

Twenty holes filled with water, twenty tomato plants, their stems wrapped in strips cut from paper grocery bags to protect them from boring insects. In 1973 our young bodies were agile. For hours we would bend over a hoe, work on our knees, gently place the tomato plants in the holes, pack the muddy soil down around them. Dirt caked our hands, got under our fingernails. Surely the fingernails of Haldeman and Ehrlichman were well manicured, their cuticles not ragged.

When I dropped in bed each night from exhaustion, in those brief moments before I fell asleep, I considered the sleepless nights many in Washington were experiencing, innocent and guilty alike. Senators Howard Baker and Lowell Weiker worrying about how the Republican Party would ever recover. Charles Colson and G. Gordon Liddy becoming aware that they might spend years in prison; Butterfield and Dean fretting about betraying those they worked for. Then of course, Nixon himself. He couldn’t be sleeping well.

Why was I so obsessed with watching the Watergate hearings? In many ways they were like a soap opera, where any minute the plot takes an unexpected turn. At times I imagined background music changing tempo, the tune becoming somber, dramatic. Yet I, like many Americans, sensed that history was being made; that bringing down a president was no light matter; that the country would never be the same.

There was probably a more personal reason, as well. In spite of Jim’s and my goal of self-reliance, of our choosing to isolate ourselves from capitalist society, I recognized that we could never be separate. Just as I had vowed to stay married for better or for worse, I was a part of a country for better or for worse. I was tied to its fate.

Nancy Werking Poling is author of the novel, “While Earth Still Speaks,” and the non-fiction book, “Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).”

Of What Value is a Book?

A few weeks after I arrived to spend a year with a German family in Berlin, I celebrated my sixteenth birthday. They gave me two books: The Diary of Anne Frank and Cry, the Beloved Country. These two books informed my life as no other books have.

Until then I had no knowledge of the Holocaust, no idea that the Nazis had murdered six million Jews. As a Southern girl who rode the city bus to school, sat while Black women and men who’d worked all day stood at the back, I’d given no thought to American racism and knew absolutely nothing about South Africa. Both books were hard to read, not because of vocabulary or complex sentences, but because they burst my bubble of innocence. 

Did I feel guilt, as some parents and school boards fear their children will react? No. I felt empathy. I cried over a girl my age being killed because she was a Jew. I ached because Black characters I knew by name suffered under apartheid in South Africa. I began to wonder about the lives of Jewish kids in my school back home. I thought about tensions related to racial integration in American schools.

WHY do we read? I read to better understand my own experience. Anne Tyler’s and Margaret Atwood’s books about women come to mind. They show me that I’m not alone in how I feel. In Well-Read Black Girl, Black women writers tell what it meant to them as girls to discover the works of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

I also read to better understand unfamiliar people and cultures. To learn about Afghanistan and other Muslim nations, I have read authors such as Khaled Hosseini. To better understand the experiences of Black women I have read books by Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, and Toni Morrison.

What else are parents and school boards objecting to? Profanity. Have they listened to their children in conversation with friends? Violence and sex. Have these parents organized protests against film and television producers who “entertain” their children? Are they monitoring the video games their children play?

I see no easy solutions to the pervasiveness of sex and violence in our culture. But I trust teachers and librarians to steer our youth toward books that broaden their worldview.

And that foster an understanding of Other,

Meanwhile, Across the Atlantic

On the morning of September 12, 2001, my husband, Jim, and I walked along the narrow brick street of a small Italian hilltown. At an outdoor newspaper stand a front-page photograph caught our attention: billows of smoke over New York. Likely an image related to a new movie. Yet we stopped. Relying on the little high school Latin we remembered, we figured something horrible had happened in New York. Terrorists. Jets. Skyscrapers. 

When we stopped for lunch at a café-tavern, a few men were watching a sports event on TV. For our benefit the proprietor changed the channel to CNN. In halting English patrons expressed concern for our country. A waiter took us to his apartment so we could use his computer to email our family. Over the next few days we had little choice but to continue our itinerary, driving from one hilltown to another. Everywhere local people had created memorials, bouquet piled on bouquet, placards expressing prayers for America. 

Back in Rome those of us whose flights home had been cancelled waited. Jim and I travel cheap and our little hotel had no TV, so we watched CNN in lobbies of expensive hotels where Americans tend to stay. No one chased us away.

During those days of waiting we had many opportunities to engage in conversation. At the Forum a Japanese journalist who had spent much of his career in the Middle East warned that a military response by the U.S would be a big mistake. At a restaurant recommended by travel guru Rick Steves, American tourists, who tend to eat dinner earlier than Italians do, sat at adjoining tables and shared worries about our families back home.

Jim and I returned to the U.S. feeling as if we’d slept through an earthquake, waking to discover that life here had changed drastically. In a way I regret being absent during a defining moment in our country’s history. Yet I was blessed to experience how the world stood with us. 

Dear Senator Cruz

(My friend, Cannan Hyde, wrote a letter to Senator Cruz about being “a good dad.” Do the pandemic and natural disasters offer unique opportunities for parenting? I thought the letter is worth sending to a wider audience.)

Dear Senator Cruz,

Here are some ideas for how to “be a good dad” in the middle of a pandemic and the worst winter weather crisis your state has ever had.

Start by asking your daughters what ideas THEY have about how to help others in their city who do not have heat, water or food. This will help them to learn to think critically about how to respond to those less fortunate than they during a natural disaster. It will also help them learn that even at their young ages they can be agents of change. After helping them implement their ideas, you could suggest the following:

  1. The girls are old enough to coordinate a “keep our community warm” drive. They could contact their classmates at their private school and friends at their church to go through their own homes collecting jackets, gloves and blankets to take to their church or a community shelter to help keep people warm.
  2. Help them box up up any food in your house that does not have to be cooked. Drive them to a shelter or food bank where they can deliver it.
  3. Track down places where you can get wood to be burned in fireplaces to keep people warm. Let the girls know that people are cutting up their furniture to burn in their fireplaces just to keep from freezing in their homes. They can help you load the wood in your SUV and deliver it to homes that have fireplaces but no wood. 
  4. Locate a store in your area that has 5 gallon buckets with lids. Take the girls to purchase 10 each, fill with water, then help them deliver it to folks who have none. Take snow shovels with you so you can all shovel snow for people to use to flush their toilets.
  5. Let the girls listen in on your phone calls to friends in neighboring states that DO have power to see if they can send over firewood, water and food to distribute to those in need. With the money you save from not going to the Ritz Carlton you could tell your friends you would pay for an AWD rental truck and driver to bring the much needed supplies.The girls could then help you deliver them. 
  6. Explain to your daughters that the reason your friends in neighboring states have power and you don’t is because they have reciprocal agreements with other states to share power in case of a local utility crisis. They might not realize that Texas has its own “reliable” power source which isn’t exactly reliable.
  7. Be sure your daughters understand that you represent the entire state of Texas and that you have a responsibility to all your constituents, especially in a time of crisis. Ask them what ideas they have about what you could do to help people who are suffering all over the state. They may have ideas other than flying to Cancun. Respectfully,

Repeating our History

Election Day, 1920, Orange County, FL, the county where I grew up. Black groups had been conducting voter registration drives. When Mose Norman, a Black man, tried to vote, a white mob went after him. In the next two days homes of nearly all of Ocoee’s Black families were destroyed by fire. Some estimates are that the white mob killed as many as 60 Blacks, maybe more.

My writing research into racial politics of North and South Carolina in the late 19th century has led me to two events, both related to Black men trying to vote. No doubt there were many, many more. 

Nov. 8, 1898, Phoenix, South Carolina. A white man was collecting affidavits from Black men who had not been allowed to vote. When local *Democrats ordered him to stop, he resisted and a fight broke out. The Democrats opened fire on the crowd of Black men who had gathered. Over the next few days 600-1000 white men descended on the town, burning homes, lynching four Black men, and killing an unknown number of others. No one was charged with the murders.

Nov. 10, 1898, Wilmington, NC. After the election, a mob of 2000 white supremacists, angry that a Black-white coalition had won the election, destroyed the property of Black citizens, killed perhaps as many as 300 people, and overthrew the election. For some time it was called a race riot and blamed on Black citizens of Wilmington, but now considered to have been a coup d’etat.

Wednesday’s attempted coup followed an election in which Black voters played a major role. It was not just about Trump. Insurrectionists were saying this is a white country and Black citizens’ votes shouldn’t count.

* Following Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s most southern white Democrats became Republicans.

John Lewis, library cards, and my confession

John Lewis, library cards, and my confession

As I mourn with the country over the death of John Lewis and my thanksgiving for his life, my thoughts keep returning to…to library cards. In Walking With the Wind and in numerous interviews, Lewis told of being denied a library card when he was sixteen because the library was “not for coloreds.” Of the many horrendous acts of racism against him, this single event seemed to stand out as one of such emotional pain that he often returned to the story.

In the summer of 1964 my husband, a seminary student participating in an interracial ministry internship, was assigned to First Baptist Church of Raleigh, NC. The black First Baptist Church, located on the opposite side of the state capitol square from the white First Baptist Church. Having grown up in the South and attended white-only segregated schools, I could count on one hand the number of real conversations I’d previously had with a black person. 

We were warmly welcomed by this large congregation, many of its members educators and leaders in Raleigh’s black community. We lived in the “colored” part of town and were the only white faces at Sunday morning worship. One of my husband’s responsibilities was working with the youth. We went bowling with the group on Saturdays and met in different homes. Most of the kids planned to attend nearby Shaw University, the second HCBU in the Southeast. One teen, Johnny, had an amazing baritone voice and hoped to study music. 

To the topic of library cards. I was a reader. I applied for a card at the Raleigh Public Library. I knew it was the white library. That’s what to this day makes me feel so guilty: I knew. But I wanted to read.

John Lewis’s story is a harsh reminder of my choice. The youth we learned to know and love that summer had high aspirations, intellect, and talent, but they only had access to Raleigh’s “colored” library, with its sparse collection. What other resources were denied these boys and girls, many of them with Lewis’s potential?

They probably have grandchildren by now. Yes, there are laws that make public places like libraries available to all, but fifty-plus years later racism still thwarts the aspirations of black youth. Meanwhile, my white-woman privileges, if unexamined, allow that obstruction to continue. An abundant supply of books, movies, and TV shows makes that scrutiny possible. But taking advantage of the offerings requires motivation and sometimes a willingness to leave my zone of comfort.

In 1964 I knew that because I was white I had access to rows and rows of shelves filled with the latest and best of published works, historical documents, and daily newspapers. I knew that church members, many of them better educated and more intelligent than I, dare not even enter that building. Yet I weekly checked out books.

 John Lewis was denied a library card. He has died, but he inspires us all, black and white, to continue his work for justice.

A writing success

RANDALL KENAN SELECTS NANCY WERKING POLING WINNER OF THE 2018 ALEX ALBRIGHT CREATIVE NONFICTION PRIZE

(31 August 2018)

Nancy Werking Poling is the winner of the 2018 Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize competition for “Leander’s Lies.” Poling will receive $1000 from the North Carolina Literary Review,thanks to a generous NCLR reader’s donation that allowed this year’s honorarium to increase (from the previous award of $250). Her winning essay will be published in the North Carolina Literary Review(NCLR) in 2019.

Editor Margaret Bauer reports that submissions for the competition doubled from previous years. A total of 15 finalists out of 63 submissions were sent to this year’s final judge, Randall Kenan. Kenan is the author of several books, including the nonfiction Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century, and will be inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in October. Kenan selected Poling’s story for the 2018 Albright Prize, saying, “It was love at first read to me, and stands out in originality and in tone.”

After years of living in many parts of the country, Nancy Werking Poling reports that she is “now happily settled in Black Mountain, NC, an area where nature and history are honored.” Historical influences are woven into her 2017 nonfiction book, Before It was Legal: A Black–White Marriage (1945–1987). Poling is also the author of Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman (2010), a short story collection, and Out of the Pumpkin Shell (2009), a novel. She has recently completed another novel, currently titled “Wrap Me Tight in Earthen Cloak,” which is set in North Carolina and inspired by the question: During this period of environmental crisis, how do I make my voice and life count?

Kim Jong-Un as a cult leader

In 2008, on an autumn day in Seoul, my husband and I hiked the mountain behind Yonsei University. Part way we came upon a group of young men in camouflage digging a long ditch. What were they doing, we asked in English. They were South Korean soldiers digging a trench in case North Korea invaded. North Korea’s threat became real to me.

Two semesters in Seoul and one day in North Korea do not qualify me as an expert on the peninsula. The day trip north, though, made me aware of how short a distance the border is from Seoul, one of the planet’s most densely populated cities.

A novel I’m reading, set in the compound of a cult, brings to mind the Jonestown Massacre, where 900 of Jim Jones’s followers drank cyanide-laced fruit punch. If we have learned anything from groups like that, it is that cult leaders don’t operate out of what many of us consider rational behavior. For the leader, at least, submitting to someone else’s authority is worse than death.

It’s no stretch to believe that Kim Jong-un, like his father, is a cult leader. He has convinced the North Korean people that no matter how bad things are, it’s worse everywhere else. He also promotes paranoia: the U.S. is set on annihilating their country. All sacrifices the people make are for a greater good.

In Kim’s apocalyptic world view, violence and destruction are inevitable. He can justify the murder of a half-brother and uncle, the imprisonment and oppression of the North Korean people. Perhaps North Koreans have come to accept that if they are going to die anyway, their Supreme Leader will at least be in control of their final days.

Meanwhile the U. S. military acts as if Kim might respond according to our rationality. Place a battleship nearby, rattle the sabers. He’ll see our resolve and back down.

What we know about cult behavior, though, suggests that it’s hard, if not impossible, to predict the leader’s and his followers’ reactions. An apocalyptic end that includes bombing Seoul may be more alluring than all other options.

Sure, we may prevent Kim from producing a missile that can reach the U.S. But Seoul, with its population of over 10 million, is just 35 miles away.