I felt like the stereotypical gambler suffering the vise-like grip of ever-escalating debts, owing way more interest than he’d originally signed on for. How so? Quite simply, I was at the mercy (there is none) of debt collectors, because I hadn’t paid my student loans.
But I wasn’t some casual drifter who elected to ignore responsibilities. I was a mother who paid a caretaker to look after my young child while I worked. I was a single parent, before the era of deadbeat Dads (so I got no court-mandated child support from my former spouse.) I was raising my young child, on an income that often didn’t stretch far enough. My older car broke down, often, and I had all the usual bills.
In my world of extreme priorities, I’d let the college loan debt lapse.
But, as I said: I was no ‘casual drifter.’ I was a teacher.
The harassment began in an unnerving way. The school secretary called me on the intra-building phone: “Mrs. Allen (my name then), there’s someone on the phone who says it’s ‘critical’ to speak with you.” I’d nervously ask: “Is it the police or a hospital?” (I feared someone in my family being in a terrible accident.) The office person simply answered: “They didn’t say, but we’ll send someone up right away to relieve you of your duties.”
I nervously awaited my replacement and walked quickly to the office, where I picked up the call. On the other end? A collection agent who informed me I was in arrears on my student loan. He asked me how I was going to ‘right the situation.’
With a bank of clerks bustling about and students arriving late, signing in, getting slips for class, I was pretty much silenced in form of protest: I mumbled I’d try to get ‘it’ (payment) to them. He insisted: “When?” I responded “This week.” He persisted: “OK, I’m noting that we’ve had this conversation and you’re stating you’ll have the payment in, by the end of the week” (it was Monday). I mumbled some kind of assent. I wanted this whole embarrassing conversation over.
I walked back to class, feeling bullied and bruised. It took a while for the anger to percolate, but it finally did, as I considered: The collector got me out of class, on the pretext there was some ‘emergency;’ they put me in the most awkward situation of answering (or ‘non-answering’ to be more exact) in front of an office full of people; they got me to say I’d pay by the end of the week (when I hadn’t enough money for food.)
Even I knew, in my compromised state, that this was wrong.
Later that day I spoke with a lawyer friend who advised: “They can’t call and harass you at your workplace. That’s illegal.” He offered even more: “I’ll tell them to cease and desist.”
In the months ahead, I discovered that I needn’t repay the loan at all, for a special proviso operated for teachers like me: I taught in a school with a high concentration of low, socio-economic families (on Welfare, reduced-lunches, etc.)
In effect, 15% of my loan was forgiven each year, ad infinitum. All I had to do was put in the paperwork, attesting to such. Had the collector ever even mentioned this to me? Absolutely not. They’re trained to get in…harass the borrower (even better, if in public forum)…and get out, with a promise to pay by certain date.
Today, I sympathize with all the students who have burgeoning school debt. Many young debtors today never foresaw what they’d face in life. They thought their salaries would sustain them—not leave them without enough to meet their bills. They never knew the predatory practices of bill collectors who’ve been amazingly brazen and free ‘til now. Worse yet, some have operated with approval and backing (contract-wise) of the Dept. of Education.
News media finally signal progress with the US Dept of Education’s latest move—to repudiate the predators. My question: “Why’d it take so very long?”