“I’m sorry, Eric, but there is nothing we can do for you.” Sharp pain and anger grew in my chest as I stared across the large wooden desk. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.
“Are you going to be OK? Let me know if I can do anything.” The words of the Associate Dean were meaningless, a social performance dictated by institutional etiquette.
“You mean I have to drop out of law school in my third year?” Absurd. A comedy. I wanted to laugh and cry.
“We can make arrangements so that you can take an academic leave of absence for up to two years.” It sounded like I would be planning the funeral of my academic career.
As I walked from Student Service offices at the University of Ottawa, I felt I had reached the end of a long journey. But this journey was around a long oval track while carrying a boulder on my back. This heavy boulder was poverty and its grinding physical and psychological strain had finally brought me to my knees. The University of Ottawa shrugged its shoulders as the “hard work = success” myth painfully dissolved in front of me: don’t come to law school if you are poor. Even better, don’t try to become a lawyer if you are poor.
In short, I was dropping out of law school because there was no way to pay for it. Tuition was $15,000 and the government’s cap on student loans for me was $12,000. I was denied a line of credit from five commercial banks because I had a low credit score and no one to co-sign. I had no one to co-sign because my mother made $19,000 last year. I couldn’t pay tuition because I was poor.
What is “poor”? What is poverty? Being raised with a single mother on disability. Public housing. High school dropouts. Hating unions because you have never been in one. Seeing your brother stabbed nearly to death. Visiting your siblings in jail. The food bank. The realization that you are the inner city youth that the evangelical summer camps are “reaching out to.” Parcels from the Salvation Army at Christmas time. Seeing the police take your mother to an asylum after losing her sanity to paranoid schizophrenia, or Children’s Aid taking your four-year-old niece. Not being able to do anything about any of this.
These are all figures that you can see on a pie chart or a study on poverty, or filling up the dockets in family and criminal courts in Ontario.
But what does poverty look like? There is the day-to-day: you open the refrigerator and there is a mustard or mayo sandwich for dinner. The month-to-month: you wait for your bus, you are buzzed like cattle into the cubicle at Ontario Works to get your cheque, or you hang your head down as a smiling church volunteer hands you a box full of food at the bank. You carry your box home on the bus, wearily eyeing the canned string beans and cranberry jelly from someone else’s Thanksgiving.
You can use these images to tell a story, but what does poverty feel like? Usually it starts with anger. You are angry at yourself, your family, and the indifferent forces that eventually grind you down.
Most of all you push against these feelings because you don’t have the luxury. You have to keep on.
Some marks are just mere annoyance: when you feel uncomfortable on a golf course, or when people speak on behalf of (or ignore) the “poor.” Most of all you feel vulnerable. You spend money because it will be gone the next day after some sort of crisis: whether it’s your own relationship breakdown, or your mother has a new husband, leaving you with no place to go. You teeter between not taking risks, because the difference between failure and success is homelessness — or taking stupid ones because you have nothing to lose.
What do you do about it? Organize? Nobody cares what we have to say. We have bad teeth and are usually uneducated. We couldn’t come to the rally because we missed our bus. We have shabby clothes. We hate each other and pretend that we aren’t poor by buying clothes we can’t afford. But we internalize this failure as our own.
This all takes its toll, but I learned early on that anger and envy will paralyze you. But you need to deal with it somehow. I hid in the library. My mother dealt with it through prayer and Jesus Christ. My brother turned to drugs, anger, and eventually prison. I did what I was told and became what is known as a member of the “respectable poor.” To be in this group you study hard, stay out of trouble, respect your scummy restaurant bosses, and borrow from VISA at the low, low interest rate of 25 per cent. Most importantly, you buy into the myth: where there’s a will, there’s a way.
The backbone of this myth comes from our parents and grandparents. They lived through the Great Depression, or left the family farm in the old country and pushed their kids (our parents) to go to school and work hard. Our parents took this up and demanded womens’ and civil rights through the 60s and 70s. But somewhere along the line they stopped.
In Ontario, their collective anger over “Rae Days” swept Mike Harris into power and his “common sense revolution” drove a hatchet into social programs. For me this amounted to a large cut from my mother’s welfare check — a wonderful and loving welfare queen if there ever was one — and more mustard sandwiches and Top Ramen for dinner. Legislative child abuse was just “common sense.”
My own generation has reluctantly accepted this myth as we passively accept “austerity” and a new type of poverty. Together middle- and lower-class Canadians are entering the workforce as employers, governments, and unions are hedging themselves against the shock of having to share their pensions, benefits, pay raises, or even jobs.
Two years ago we said “enough” and occupied parks across the world. Our neighbours eventually got annoyed and gave the police and politicians the nod to arrest and club us into vacating the parks. Public parks are for dogs to shit in, not for questioning the status quo. We got pushed back to our Starbucks jobs where we exist between the dream of our parents, our useless degrees, and the reality of minimum wage paying jobs. We make your lattes to the tune of our own contempt, sarcasm, and painful irony.
For those that have made it out of this youth unemployment crisis there is a shared sense that you are either lucky or connected through some family or friend. Those who have succeeded feed into the “hard work + study = success myth” by claiming that they #startedfromthebottom; to borrow a phrase. This is despite the fact that many of them imagine they hit a home run despite the fact that they were born on third base. Together in tandem we feed this myth with our parents, we need it, why else would we borrow $50,000 for an education?
Our collective hopes and ignorance grease this myth while school administrators, politicians, employers, and bureaucrats prune away at it to make it inaccessible. The law school’s administrators add an extra box to a scholarship application that puts it just out of reach or they raise tuition another thousand dollars that squeezes the door shut a few more inches.
Let me give you an example. At my weakest moment I faced the phalanx of administrators at the University of Ottawa, each pushing me along with their own version of “no, we can’t help you until you pay your tuition.”
I followed them until I got to the top of the authority chain with Assistant Deans Lisa Blair and Craig Forcese. This was as high up as I could get, the buck stopped with them, and I felt like I was meeting the all-powerful Wizard of Oz. But unlike the Wizard she was not at all incompetent, she just didn’t care. I gave them both a short story of my life and current circumstances, exposing my insecurities with the hope that they could somehow find a way to keep me enrolled.
Professor Forcese and Ms. Blair told me that my only recourse was to apply to the “emergency bursary.” This bursary was created for students facing unforeseen financial hardships, circumstances, or emergencies. My economic circumstances were “foreseen” so I didn’t qualify. The logic is that if your house burns down you will qualify, but if you never really had a house your financial circumstances are foreseeable. The message from the University of Ottawa is implicit, but important: if you are poor, don’t bother coming to law school.
I am by far not the only one that has faced this crisis. Since opening up with my peers many more students have come forward and told me that they are facing the same crisis. But after living in poverty you are used to these crises, the shortages and heartbreaks, and you somehow convince yourself that it will be okay.
This. This is why there are so few working-class lawyers. This is aggravated by the fact that the legal profession depends on the poor. It is obvious and insidious in many areas, like immigration, criminal law, landlord tenant, bankruptcy, small claims court, etc, but the common law is by and large shaped by the positions advocated by wealthy litigants.
Lucky for me, my story has a happy ending. This summer, when I’d finally accepted that I would have to drop out of law school, a friend offered to co-sign a loan for me . What’s more, knowing that I would graduate on time meant I could apply for articling positions, which lead to an offer from a Vancouver firm, hopefully my one-way ticket out of a lifetime of poverty.
But I know I got lucky. Many other law students will work even harder and not get this lucky break. They will drop out and truly see that the myth is a farce; if you’re poor, don’t come to law school.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.