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This is about student-loan debt, how I discharged it, improbably, and what that's taught me about personal credibility. First, the backstory.

Sometime after I turned 40, I opted to move ahead with formal teacher certification after long experience as a substitute teacher. I wanted to teach high-school mathematics. I was making a career choice with the very best information I had, circa 2006, both in terms of self-understanding, and in terms of understanding the career field I'd be entering. No youngster, I was wading into teaching with few illusions about public education, or anything else. It meant going back to school and going into debt. But I knew I wanted to be performing a direct service, a potentially life-changing one, and I wanted to be doing it on the taxpayer's nickel.

Fast-forward to 2013. I hold a teaching certification (called a "credential" in this state). It's cost me dearly, in more ways than one. Yet today, my credential seems to be as worthless as the paper it's printed on. Unable to land a real classroom job, I've remained a substitute teacher since 2010, when I got out of the teacher-training program I had to go into debt to afford. So I work part-time, without benefits, without even a regular schedule or a dependable income. Did I say I detest the work, and have long felt myself to be stagnating, dying, doing it? There it is. To make a long and heart-breaking story short, my résumé generates interest. I have had interviews up the yin-yang. But I have not netted one single offer, in the three years I've been applying, or in any of the three states where I've applied.

You have the backstory, now I invite you to read on.  

Now, my debt wasn't huge, by the standards of many student loans, but it certainly was weighing on me. It was a Stafford loan, carried by Sallie Mae, at 5.6% interest. As such, the Federal government financed it for the first three years after I graduated from my teacher-training program. I extended that subsidy every six months during this three-year grace period, through a process called "deferment." I didn't pay a penny and I didn't rack up interest. All the while, I was thinking, "I'm sure I'll land a job and be able to pay this thing off. I just have to. I've been so diligent and done everything right—working on my interviewing skills, all of it. And I'd be a great teacher, in time. I'd inspire many people. Diligence and promise are rewarded, right?" I still harbored one stubborn illusion: that interested and qualified people could often land public-sector jobs, particularly teacher-jobs. From the time I could remember, until recently, this had been the case. (As readers know, public-sector employment has dwindled sharply with the latest recession, and in this venue, there's a lot of sophisticated discussion about just why that is.) Anyway, by the time July, 2013 came around, I'd run out of deferments, the loan was coming due, and I still had no real job. I was going to have to start paying on the thing. I said paying "on" it; I wouldn't be "paying it down," since basically all I could cough up, on my erratic, part-time employment was interest. Every indication was that I was going to be in hock a long, long time, emerging only painfully, in fits and starts, if at all. Sallie Mae was set to make a lot of money off of me, in exchange...for not destroying my life, of course. If I kept paying interest, paying off the loan at a snail's pace, they wouldn't render me unable to land a job, sign a rental lease, or take out credit, ever again, as they would if I defaulted. I was in an unworkable bind.

Now, about this time, a benefactor—who shall remain anonymous—heard of my situation. This person asked what the outstanding balance on my student loan was. I told them the ball-park figure, and they said, "Find out what you currently owe Sallie Mae, to the penny. I'll loan you that amount so you can pay Sallie Mae off, and you can pay me back, some each month, whatever you can afford, at 0% interest."

I was stunned. I made absolutely sure I had heard this person right. Then I started sobbing.

Less than a week later, the money was wired into my checking account. The transfer to Sallie Mae took place.

To confirm the payment had gone through, I spoke to a Sallie Mae representative.

"Congratulations on paying off your student loan," the representative said. (I suspect they're trained to say this, and I didn't think much of it right then.)

It was the email I received from Sallie Mae six weeks or so later that fascinated me.


Congratulations on paying off your student loan(s)!

In today's world, it's not always easy to manage debt, use credit wisely, and keep up with the demands of your career and personal life. But you've done it—and we applaud you for your success.

Would you be willing to share your success story with borrowers who are currently repaying their student loans? We're sure they'd be interested and encouraged by what you have to say. If so, send us an e-mail so that we can add you to our archive of success stories.

•    Tell us about your education experience and/or what you're doing now that you've accomplished your education goals

•    Tell us what you did to successfully repay your loans

    Please include your name, state of residence, the school you graduated from, and your type of degree/education focus. Your subject line should be "Achieve." You can also include a photograph of yourself. By submitting your story and/or photograph, you agree to certain rules.

Thank you in advance for considering this request. It was our pleasure to serve you.   


Sallie Mae—Department of Education Loan Services

I can hear the champagne-corks popping right now.

Sallie Mae's email makes sense in the context of the seemingly unrelated historical concepts of Divine Right and Manifest Destiny. I mean, respectively, the supposedly God-given prerogatives of European royalty to rule, before the Age of Enlightenment, and that of white American settlers to conquer and subjugate "natives" as they migrated westward across the continent in the 1800s. These belief-systems had in common the assumption that fortunate people are especially worthy of advantages and opportunities and are the best-suited to wield influence. Fortunate people rightly wield influence by ruling, by colonizing, and simply through their prominence, through the relative social and historical weight their stories carry.

We like to hear from winners.

Then you wouldn't want to hear from me.

Divine Right and Manifest Destiny are long-gone. They are downright embarrassing today, since we don't like the idea of social rank merely by Divine justification. While Almighty benevolence can factor in personal success, we like people to earn their fortune—by toiling, and suffering much, for an open-ended period, before they succeed. Somebody who starts from nothing, can surpass somebody else more advantaged, goes the promise. Even if you started from nothing, and even if fate thwarts your every step, by the sweat of your brow, you can "arrive." Then your story becomes one we want to hear.

But the personal gains that allowed me to pay off my loan, while not-ill gotten, came through passive luck. I didn't earn them. They aren't evidence I "kept up with the demands of my career and personal life," as the Sallie Mae email implies. A personal benefactor (one who "hated banks") came out of the woodwork, unforeseen, to help me, as I suspect many people who pay down their student loans these days have outside help. I'd bet relatively few in 2013 discharge their student-loan debt by earning enough money to pay down the balance in full.  

Admittedly, there probably are people out there, even during these bleak economic times, whose lives embody rags-to-riches narratives. They're a minority, the ones whose stories Sallie Mae is soliciting. The corporate myth-makers charged with keeping little debtor-nobodies indentured to Sallie Mae, prize these exceptions. They benefit from the pretty stories they tell, as publishers of cheap romance novels benefit from stoking the hopes of lonely little readers for undying love. The mythical "successes" work long and hard, and one day, wouldn't you know it, their ship comes in.  

So Sallie Mae would like us to believe could happen to any of us.

So it seldom happens.

I reflected on where I would be, exactly, if fate, in the person of my anonymous benefactor, hadn't intervened so unexpectedly.

Well, I'd be tossing and turning at night. I'd be one of Sallie Mae's throng of debtors, people who keep making tiny payments towards their outstanding balance—sweetly, pitifully hoping—while the digits on the interest-meter keep right on spinning apace.

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