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Conversations with America

Conversations with America: Heather Ryan

Heather Ryan

David Schulman

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Heather Ryan and her daughter
(Courtesy Heather Ryan)
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It's a crazy time for an election. Congressmen and women are out on the stump, facing a politician's worst nightmare: Responding to dire, changing news right before angry voters go to the polls. And voters will most likely be angry about the economy. For a few weeks now, we've been bringing you essays from folks around the country about what they think should be on voters' minds this election. We're calling it Conversations with America. Our next piece comes from writer Heather Ryan of Eugene, Ore. She's had the economy on her mind for a long, long time.

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As this summer wound down, I found myself in a terrible spot: I was out of money. I teach freshman composition at a university and write on the side. I'm also a single mom to three kids who are 10, eight and six. Work had started, but my first paycheck was a few weeks out. We needed staples: bread, milk, eggs. I wondered what I could sell. I didn't have jewelry, family heirlooms or swanky gadgets.

I came up with two ideas: sell my books, or sell my plasma.

I had hundreds of books. I even had books written about other books. I figured that if I sold 30 of my favorite books, I might pocket $75. I also had lots of good, healthy plasma that had never been exposed to IV drugs or Mad Cow. The local plasma center pays $35 for the first "donation" and $45 for the second. You can donate twice a week.

It took about three seconds to choose selling my plasma. I could regenerate my plasma while I slept. Replacing my books would require money.

But I also didn't want to sell my books because of what they represented. I use my books to teach, and re-read passages when I'm stuck in my own writing. Sometimes, when it's been a particularly rough month, I walk through my rental house at night. Even though I wear used clothes, I have my stacks of books. They remind me of classes I took, papers I wrote, praise I garnered. These books are integral to my life, because they are a symbol of what I still long to believe in--the idea that with hard work and intelligence, I will someday have an easier life. "Poverty doesn't look like this," I tell myself. "You're not poor."

America faces an economic disaster that could rival the Great Depression. Political candidates are talking about the crisis as though it's new. But for many Americans, poverty is something we've been sliding quietly into for years. So many of us now qualify as poor, despite education and hard work. We didn't expect our lives to look like this. I teach at a major university, work full-time, and only make $27,000 a year. And I'm one of the lucky ones. This election, I wonder who will represent people like me best?

Monday, I drove my old car across town to the plasma center. People packed the lobby and were quietly ushered back by technicians. When it was my turn, a woman pricked my finger then dismissed me for low hematocrit. They didn't want me.

To leave, I had to pass through the donor floor. People lay on beds with IVs snaking from their arms. The blood was drawn and the plasma extracted by a machine next to each bed. The blood was then pumped back into each person's veins. People shivered because their blood had cooled.

I walked through the room and tried not to look at anyone. I wanted to turn around, ask for another chance. I imagined the books I'd sell. Later that afternoon, I parted with my old copy of "The Great Gatsby" and 20 other books. This election, I'll remember that feeling at the plasma center. I'll remember that poverty isn't about selling books or plasma; it's about running out of options. It's staring into a parking lot hemmed with chain-link fence and wondering what you can part with next.

  • Music Bridge:
    The Red Truth
    Artist: Helios
    CD: Caesura (Type)
More stories from our Conversations with America series

Comments

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  • By Lisa Causey

    From Bakersfield, CA, 07/25/2010

    Rachel, it sounds to me like you have never had your own ox get gored. It's been one and a half years since you posted. I'm wondering if you still feel the same way. If so, and with the economy headed down the 'double dip', I wonder how you will feel about it a year from now? One of the things that our loving Creator does through adversity is that adversity helps a person to understand and have compassion for others--providing that person responds by opening their heart, not closing it. It is ultimately the one choice that determines with what attitude that person will live his or her life. Heather has chosen to open her heart and use her talent to put an eloquent voice to what millions are experiencing and feeling, but can not describe.

    By Rachel Cohen

    From Los Angeles, CA, 12/10/2008

    Ryan's written about taking the kids to a soup kitchen, selling her plasma, bugging their deadbeat dad for money. What's next--turning tricks? I'm sick of her whining. She's got a great deal at the U of Oregon, and if money's that tight--get a second job,get a room-mate or move to a state that has more opportunity.

    By Heather Ryan

    From Eugene, OR, 10/21/2008

    Thank you to everyone who left a comment here. It's truly great to read them, and I do appreciate the feedback.

    I hadn't actually realized that anyone would consider my salary terribly low because it's actually good for an adjunct. Considering I get health insurance for my three kids and myself, I feel lucky. I have many, many, friends who teach for a lower salary and don't receive benefits. We do it because we love it, and because it gives us a chance to use or skills and talents.

    I think the fact that I feel lucky with my job says something about both the education system in America, but also the work environment. We've gotten to the point where making $27,000 a year teaching full time at a big college can be a lucky break. We've also gotten to a place where having full health care coverage for a family is also a lucky break.

    These are not resounding accolades for the system.

    Again, I'm greatful for the support and comments and I truly appreciated them.

    By Heather Ryan

    From Eugene, OR, 10/21/2008

    Thank you to everyone who left a comment here. It's truly great to read them, and I do appreciate the feedback.

    I hadn't actually realized that anyone would consider my salary terribly low because it's actually good for an adjunct. Considering I get health insurance for my three kids and myself, I feel lucky. I have many, many, friends who teach for a lower salary and don't receive benefits. We do it because we love it, and because it gives us a chance to use or skills and talents.

    I think the fact that I feel lucky with my job says something about both the education system in America, but also the work environment. We've gotten to the point where making $27,000 a year teaching full time at a big college can be a lucky break. We've also gotten to a place where having full health care coverage for a family is also a lucky break.

    These are not resounding accolades for the system.

    Again, I'm greatful for the support and comments and I truly appreciated them.

    By raw umber

    10/15/2008

    Heather my heart goes out to you-I relate completely. I lost my job in August, through no fault of my own, and have not been able to find work yet in my field. I have taken on work as a temporary at 1/4 of my former salary. Although possessed of a wealth of knowledge and experience in the management/distribution/ manufacturing field, I lack the prerequisite degree listed in many comparable job postings and am not even granted an interview. To make matters worse, I am also being told I am too overqualified to be considered for an entry level management or administrative support position. Last month my mother had to buy us food and I had to count up all the change in our change jar just to put gas in my car to go an interview for a permanent job. Until the financial meldown of the past 2 weeks our mortage company was unwilling to work with us in anyway. No partial payments, no deferments, no nothing. It was: "Yeah, sorry for you but just give us our money now!!!" Since the financial meltdown thankfully their tune has changed and we have been able to make arrangements with them until we are back on our feet. We did not take on a mortage we could not afford nor live beyond our means as so many finding themselves in dire straights have been demonized as doing. We have no credit cards or credit accounts whatsoever, we only have our home. For many years now, we have only bought what we could pay cash for and until I lost my job had some money in savings. I despair for the vast ranks of Americans who are underemployed and/or underpaid for their skillset & talents. Despite all recent events in America and in my personal life I remain positive and hopeful. Keep a song in your heart as I do. We moms, we always make a way.

    By Kristine Dixon

    From Duluth, MN, 10/13/2008

    I was so moved by Heather's story. My family is not quite there, but we're close. My husband makes just slightly more than Heather as a pilot and I stay at home with our 10 month old because the cost of daycare and the need for a second car would far outweigh what I could earn. It is truly a sad commentary on our society that well educated, hard working professionals cannot earn a wage that will feed their families and are forced to sell prized possessions. It's heartbreaking and just plain wrong.

    By Scot Wick

    From Chicago, IL, 10/12/2008

    Re Heather Ryan's situation, and Britta Spann's comment "it's exploitation plain and simple," I'd substitute the word "economics" for "exploitation." I'm also a writer, but since I wanted a better chance at a good income I entered industrial sales, and writing became my hobby.

    By Britta Spann

    From Eugene, OR, 10/11/2008

    Compare the salary Heather, one of the best teachers in my department, makes with that of your average football coach or administrator. Sickening.

    Even beyond the fact that people who don't educate make the most money at a university, there's a huge discrepancy among the people who do educate. Unless you're a tenured professor in the sciences, you don't make much. Adjuncts, postdocs, instructors, and graduate students do most of the teaching at any university, yet they frequently don't make enough to make ends meet.

    This year, as a graduate student/administrator at Heather's school, I make about $12,000 (and don't qualify for food stamps, thanks to a weird loophole in the system). Next year, as a postdoc, I'll be teaching full time (twice as much work as now) yet only making $3000 more. It's exploitation, plain and simple, but it's the only way to do what I love.

    Heather, thank you very much for writing this. University teaching = big money is not only an annoying misconception, but a dangerous one for the underpaid and overworked. I can't tell you how much I respect and admire you for being a good teacher, mother, reader, writer, and who knows what all else, all at the same time.

    By Scott Lubbock

    From Eugene, OR, 10/11/2008

    I, too, have been a teacher, writer, collector and lover of books that are precious to me. Like Ms.Ryan, I was hopeful that I could "eat my words", could feed myself and my family with creative, nourishing ideas put into words are shared generously. Her skill, thoughtfulness and hardwork should be enough to feed her children. I can think of almost no current politician who would not starve if he or she had to eat his or her words. There is more than one kind of hunger that threatens our global village.

    By Phung Huynh

    From Los Angeles, CA, 10/11/2008

    Like Ms. Heather Ryan, I am also a mother with an MFA. I also teach and find it very difficult to make ends meet and provide for my family, even though I work at two different schools. It saddens me that Heather's situation is not a novel one; I know too many people like her, including myself. It is a frustrating reality that people like Heather and myself invested so many years in academia, and yet we struggle to maintain our craft, raise our children, work long hours, freelance, and still find ourselves earning an inadequate wage that we could have earned with a high school education.

    By Michael Cahn

    10/11/2008

    Dear Professor Frohnmayer pres@uoregon.edu, I hear with interest a short piece by one of your staff, Heather Ryan, who teaches composition at your university. It is a very personal, and a very political piece she had on the radio http://weekendamerica.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/10/11/conversations_ryan/ I was shocked to hear that one can be employed at your unversity full time, and still look into the abyss of poverty. I am very grateful for her reminding us that poverty is no news, and that it is at home even among the staff teaching your students. But at the same time I am shocked that your university is unable to look after your employees, however adjunct they are as lecturers, so they find themselves forced to choose between a plasma donation and the selling of books. I do not assume you are at ease with such circumstances, and for me this is a shrill accusation of your inability, as an institution, to look after your teaching staff. J'accuse! What went wrong? Would you allow me to suggest that a proper employment for the author of this piece would be a great honor to your university, and that a one-time payment may be more than appropriate. You may also want to ask Heather for a list of books she has sold so that you can replace them This is not a horrible mother. As it stands, it is a horrible university

    By Amy Brown

    10/11/2008

    Why is Heather Ryan's salary only $27,000 per year, teaching full time at a major university? How can this be possible?

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