The Upside to Being Upside Down (Student Loans)

How much is a memory worth?

No one made me take out more student loans than I needed for college and I had no illusion about whether or not there would be consequences down the road when I had to pay them back with interest, no matter how low the rates. There is a part of me that regrets my immature decision making in this regard, but there is a part of me that does not.

The regret has two sources. The first regret centers around the fact that I feel as if I ended up with more debt than education, at least from a practical standpoint. My degree is not the most practical and has not necessarily helped me in my career. Nonetheless, I am glad that I have it. The second and more important regret is based on the fact that my wife has helped to carry the burden of my student loan debt. I was halfway through college when we met and had already taken out a significant number of loans, money that I had spent on things besides classes and books. This was not her debt, but she married me and has helped me through the repayment process while we both work and raise our daughter.

The part of me that does not regret having taken out these loans knows that the experiences I had with the money have been invaluable. For several years, while I went to school half-time and worked at a coffee shop, I had a very dear friend who I spend a lot of time with. He did not drive and loved to go to concerts, mostly to see blues bands. Since he did not drive, sometimes he had no way to get to the show. So he would buy two tickets and give the second one to whoever would take him. I became his concert chauffeur.

Eventually, my friend and I started traveling further and further to shows and music festivals. I did not mind driving long distances and he did not mind being along for the ride. We went to shows in Washington DC, New York City, Virginia, and all the way down to Mississippi, Memphis, and Arkansas. We took these trips all year long, as time and money would allow, for several years straight. It was an amazing experience. We saw some really wonderful performers, met great people, and got to see how truly diverse our country is.

This friend was significantly older than me and he smoked cigarettes for most of his life. One day, on our way down to Mississippi for the Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival, he told me that he thought he had cancer. I told him that he needed to go to a doctor and get a professional opinion when we got home. We did not discuss it again during the trip. We had fun, but things had changed. When we returned home, in spite of my semi-frequent nagging, it was the better part of a year before he finally went to a doctor and the doctor confirmed that he indeed had lung cancer which had metastasized to his brain.

Within several months, my friend passed away. As I contemplate the last bit of my student loans, which will hopefully be paid off this year, I think back on the experiences I had and the time that they bought me with my friend in addition to my formal education. While I am conflicted about the burden that this debt has put on my wife and me financially during our marriage, I also know that what I got for the money goes well beyond its financial value.

 Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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