When: My Rejected Broke Student Essay

Last Fall the University Daily Californian hosted an essay contest called the “Broke Berkeley Student Essay,” for which students were invited to “mourn exorbitant textbook prices, deplore the inherent difficulties of finding affordable housing, bemoan the innate complications of financial aid and speak to how these worries have shaped your experiences, your goals and yourself.” After hearing through the grapevine that not a single student had submitted an entry, I threw one together and sent it in. I was immediately informed that it would be published with slight changes, changes I was unable to abide by and which mostly consisted of a short line at the very end that blamed “the system” for my troubles. So instead I’ll share it here, in all of its almost perfect word-countedness, for your schadenfreude.

When you are denied a tour of the facility in which your child will be starting daycare because you are applying for a government subsidy to cover the cost, only to find out later that your child has been placed in a temporary trailer in a parking lot adjacent to the fully-equipped house in which the non-subsidized children receive their care.

When down the street from your child’s daycare trailer you pass the football stadium, recently renovated to the tune of 321 million dollars, on your way to pay your rent- which you do in person in order to make sure that the money goes directly to your rent, and not to a number of mystery fees that have popped up on your CARS account- only to find that the cashier’s windows have been closed because the employees there have been required to close early so that that they can sell concessions at that evening’s football game.

When you spend half a day waiting in line at Social Services (something you do an average of twice a month) to address what turns out to be a clerical error that has cut your family’s food stamps by more than fifty percent for more than six months, and you wonder if the clerk in question found it hard to believe that the university actually paid you so little.

IG Sproul Plaza

When, after that debacle you are informed that you qualify for cash assistance (you rush home to draw up your new budget, in which you imagine income finally exceeding expenses) and a week later you are informed that in order to continue receiving this aid you will have to attend a personal finance workshop, which is only offered on the days that both you and your spouse have both work and school. The aid is cut by one third, and your income once again falls prey to your expenses.

When there are only three weeks left in the semester, and you are informed that, due to the shoddy organization between the various entities that award financial grants and loans, you now find yourself owing the University of California $1,200 dollars, which you no longer have because you’ve budgeted (see: spent) it.

When in a panic you seek out the folks from the Student Parent Center and they help you with a budget appeal, but your expenses don’t qualify so you appeal that appeal, and find yourself sending it to someone higher up the food chain, who tells you they will consider making an exception, but that they can’t meet that day because they’ll be out of the office. You deliver your appeal in person anyway, with your two-year-old in tow, and find that the woman is, indeed, in her office, so you get to have a meeting. At this meeting you are allowed a “one-time exception” and informed that your child-support checks don’t count as qualified expenses. Your child plays peacefully in the window with an Obama bobblehead.

Or when, after picking up your child from daycare, you stop at The International House to buy a muffin to make change for the bus because your child lost your student ID, but the power goes out because of an explosion on campus, which is more than probably the direct result of the university’s 700 million dollar backlog of deferred maintenance, and you are therefore forced to attempt boarding the 52 without the proper payment. You think to yourself “I am carrying a two-year-old, one Trader Joe’s bag full of library books, another full of baby gear, and a backpack- surely the bus driver will have compassion?” He doesn’t. You try to slip by but he calls you out. You tell him your situation, he says you can’t ride, you say you’re riding anyway, he parks the bus and threatens to call the police. You get as close to him as you can (the sign about the 10k dollar fine for punching a bus driver looms behind him), and drop an F-bomb in his face. Storming off the bus, down Bancroft, your toddler caresses your cheek, tells you “It’s okay, Papa.”

When you can literally feel the awesome power of money as you sit across the table from the lawyer for the administration of the University of California, Berkeley, for eight hours as they grill you on the events of November 9th, 2011, when everybody in the room knows exactly what happened that day: the cops brutally beat you and a bunch of other students, many of which later filed a lawsuit, which this deposition is a part of. For eight hours, in a slick high rise building in San Francisco, they bully you, and treat your deposition as though it were your trial- cameras in your face, the clickety-click of the stenographer muffled by thick carpet, marble, and money. Your lawyers work pro bono, the UC’s have more money than you can dream about, which is why they always win: they can drag this out ad infinitum, but for us time is money- and we don’t have any. Box after box of facts about your life are presented to you as if they weren’t yours, as if your life was a weapon to be used against you. At some point, a lawyer points out that the police were just doing their jobs- that thing we do to make money.

Four years ago the police, at the behest of UC Berkeley administration, brutalized me and a bunch of other students and occupy demonstrators. I was a brand new graduate student, and I think I can now safely and dispassionately say that my experience at Cal has gone downhill ever since.

The difference between finding yourself at the end of a police baton and the endless processes of humiliation, isolation, exploitation of labor, and voluntary servitude is one only of degree.

Don’t be deceived: they will do this to you if you are perceived as a threat, and they won’t feel bad, and they will try to get out of taking responsibility – they are experts (because they have the power and the capital) at getting out of taking responsibility. And as far as the myth of the progressive birthplace of the free speech movement goes: I urge you to chuck that bullshit clean out the window. The vitality that has been witnessed at UC Berkeley (and anywhere else for that matter) has ALWAYS been that of the students: it never has been, and never will be, the legacy of the administration or the school itself.

The first thing UC Berkeley did to me was break me. I’ve been spending the vast majority of my time since trying to pick up the pieces, and I’ve seen far too many brilliant young undergraduates get pumped through and shat out on the other end, confused, hurt, and finding it difficult to deal with the world.

The Place of Anger #4: Flatulence

Question: Where is the place of anger in the university?

preface/ apologia: I am a smoker, but I consider myself a courteous one.  For the most part, I make an effort, when smoking in public – like, say, on campus – to find a place that is far enough removed from other people so as not to bother them.

Answer: Yesterday, after class, I sat down outside to smoke a cigarette.  After finding an arguably secluded spot, I sat down and lit up.  From a spot on a bench, about 50 feet away, I immediately heard a young woman cough.  I looked up to make sure that I was not smoking anyone out, so to speak.  The young woman, I felt, was not sitting close enough to me to be bothered – or so I thought.

Somewhere around two minutes later, I found my post-class/ pan-cigarette reverie interrupted by the very same young woman, who approached me aggressively and stood over me.

“Your smoke,” she said, staring me in the face, “is blowing right in my face.”

I was dumbstruck; I stared.

“I wish I could fart in your face;” she said, lifting her leg in the universal sign for the act of flatulence, “you deserve it.”

Then she stomped off.

 

Epilogue – The Squirrel & The Crow

After the young lady left, I found myself once again staring off into space, pondering the bizarre episode, when I realized that a squirrel had taken up residence on a branch directly within my line of vision.  It was perched there, leaning forward, in a pointedly aggressive fashion, and it proceeded to give me the stinkeye.

Eventually the small rodent left, only to be replaced moments later by a crow, who, after making his way up the sidewalk in his awkwardly crowish gait, leaped up into the same tree and turned toward me.  His neck feathers were puffed and ruffled, and he thrust his head forward in an act that I can only describe as avian hostility (as though he were fighting for a mate).  He then proceeded to warble at me in deeply guttural, measured tones, his beady little bird eyes locked on mine.

The Place of Anger #3: A Funny Story, Actually

Question: Where is the place of anger in the university?

Answer #5

Recently I met a graduate student who is a couple of years ahead of me in my own department.  His wife is also a graduate student in the same department.  We got to talking about Cal’s childcare.  He was as frustrated because, as he explained to me, since both he and his partner are working GSI’s, they make too much money to qualify for subsidized child care through the university, and they can’t afford it without said subsidy.  Don’t forget that the monthly pay for GSI’s is well below the living wage in Alameda County.

Answer #6

Also recently I met a woman who has worked for the Art Department for over 16 years.  She was walking her dog outside of Kroeber Hall one morning when we struck up a conversation.  She was on the verge of tears when she told me that her higher-ups were deliberating on her fate: “in an effort to save money,” the powers that be were considering moving her and a whole host of other support staff to an office building down on 4th street.

Answer #7

Last Thursday my partner and I stopped by the cashier’s windows at the facility on Channing Street, where many people pay their tuition, rent, childcare, etc.  I noticed a small sign in the window that proclaimed that the cashier’s windows would be closed on Fridays from here on out.  When I inquired as to the reason from the be-cargo-shorted and shoeless undergraduate work-studier, I was told that it was “a funny story, actually:” since they were now responsible for concession stand sales on game day, they could not continue to operate in their traditional capacity: to accept payments for crucial services like tuition, rent, and childcare on Fridays – the payment of which carries a rather large weight for those of us who get paid on Fridays, and whose timely payment ensures a continued participation in the university.

The Place of Anger #2: Ticket To Ride

Question: Where Is The Place Of Anger In The University?

Answer #3:

During a particularly chaotic episode at the above-mentioned bus stop, in the shadow of the above-mentioned stadium, I managed – while wrangling my 18-month old, two book bags (hers and mine), a tote bag, and an umbrella stroller – squeezed as we were between the foot traffic of students and joggers and the actual rush hour traffic of the three-way stop at Bancroft and Piedmont, to lose my student ID card.  I had thought ahead to take it out of my wallet and place it securely in the left breast pocket of my shirt, for easy access when the bus arrived.  Somewhere in there, however, it decided to disappear into the ether.

Two days later, I found myself at the Cal1/ Student ID card center on Lower Sproul Plaza.  There I discovered that it would only cost me 25 dollars to replace the actual card – but that in order to get a new bus pass sticker it would cost me 65 more dollars.  Oh and I’d have to go to a different facility to get it.  When I asked, incredulously – and with a number of swear words strategically injected into the question – why, the young undergraduate student who was working the front desk “reminded” me that this information had been on the back of my lost card, and that in accepting it I had “agreed” to paying the fee in the case that the card became lost.  She sounded as though she was responding with an official response provided to her by her superiors, which made sense considering its patronizing tone, and it translated into something like “By accepting your student ID card, you agreed” (a tricksy rhetorical sleight-of-tongue) “to paying an exorbitant fee should you decide, at some moment in the future, to misplace your ID card.”  In other words: I should’ve thought about this before I decided to lose it.

Besides the fact that I’m not the type of student that has 65 dollars earmarked for those moments when I spontaneously decide to engage in minor transgressions against the university, I am already paying it.

Answer #4:

Toward the end of the summer of 2013, as the majority of my cohort and I prepared ourselves emotionally and mentally for our impending TAships, we were surprised to find that on our August bill a “Campus and Transit Fee” had appeared.  Being fellowship students, we’d spent our first two years primarily engaged in class work while we lived off of our modest stipend.  This semester, however, we were making the transition into the curious world of student-employeeship, wherein we were to begin our new jobs as discussion section leaders.  We were not informed that we would be required to pay over 300 dollars of our pay back into the university until we were given 15 days in which to do so.  And this out of a monthly pay rate that is over 6,000 dollars below the living wage for Alameda county – before taxes.  Seventy of these dollars are specifically earmarked to go to AC Transit, meaning that after I’d decided to lose my original card, I’d be paying more than double that in order to be able to ride the bus to class in the morning, and home at night.  This sort of thing is apparently known as a “Partial Fee Remission,” which – as far as I can tell – basically means that the University reserves to right to change them at any time, and your department can choose whether or not they will inform you about them in the first place.  After calculating how much money I would spend were I to continue using the bus as much as I do now – and even allowing for a slight rise in ridership – it has become clear that it would be cheaper for me to simply pay my bus fees out of pocket.  But then, for half of that, I don’t have a choice, do I?  And even when I take care of that, I still won’t be able to ride.