We've been talking a lot about money in a couple of my classes the past few weeks, and we're only just getting started. First of all, I've always found the concept weird. Maybe that's because I'm an artist, a poet, and the idea of spending umpteen hours a week doing something in which I am uninterested at best so that I can earn what are essentially numbers on a piece of paper just seems so....irrelevant much of the time. I participate in direct deposit whenever and wherever it is offered to me, so most months I don't even see a paycheck. Or cash, considering I have a bank card. It's all done on computers. And the transactions have gotten so convoluted that they no longer make any sense to me.
I'm not suggesting by any means that a subsistence living is better, or that direct trade in goods would solve everything (for one thing, I'm not sure I'd want to be the guy whose value is computed in eggplants, or bathroom cleanser, or--god forbid--gym socks). So on a certain level I understand the need for currency, the need to give everyone equal access to things, by giving them instead access to what those things represent, which is of course, "value."
And that's another fucked up concept. Value. Consider: I get paid less than most janitors. For spending three hours per day in a car, four hours per day in front of a classroom, at least one to two hours per day prepping for being in front of the classroom (and that's a rough average that also covers weekends and vacations) and at least another fifteen hours per week grading papers. Usually more. And I love what I do. Except for the commuting part, which frankly I could do without, although it does give me an excuse twice daily to not be grading papers at that moment. (There have been times when traffic is so bad going in towards the Lincoln Tunnel that I've actually been able to grade papers while commuting, but that's neither here nor there.)
In a nutshell, in a perfect world, I teach people to tell the world what they feel and think about things. I teach them to look, to listen, to react in a thoughtful way rather than just a kneejerk reaction that's probably been trained into them by others. With a little luck, I teach them to read, and I teach them to write. And for this, to do this sixty hours per week at three different schools, I am compensated at a rate that puts me below the local poverty line. It puts me right in the same economic class as many of the students I teach, in fact. The ones who can't get ahead. The ones who are searching for jobs that will allow them to leave the ghetto and make something of themselves, and have realized that education is really the only way to do this. I have the education. I have twice the education many of them will ever have. And were I not living in my parents' house at the moment, I'd be living in the ghetto with them. I can't get ahead, either. Education and the economy are funny things. The current administration pretends to have acknowledged the irrevocable link between them, by instituting No Child Left Behind, but that's frankly just a publicity stunt that's doing more damage than it is good. Anybody who works directly in schools knows that. Twenty years after the Jersey City Public School system was taken over by the state, it was given back this summer. I guess they couldn't figure out what the hell to do with it, either.
So how do we determine how much value something has? How do we assign a price tag? Why are the most crucial and worthwhile pursuits the ones that pay the least? Why are poets, teachers, inventors, artists, social workers, nurses, mothers, and midwives struggling to exist while salesmen, advertising executives, stockbrokers, TV stars, pop singers, and real estate moguls have so much money they can't even figure out how to give it away? Why is that? Why does a librarian make $12 an hour if she's lucky and lives in a mid-sized city, and a personal injury lawyer live in an opulent million dollar home? Why do some of my students have to drop my class because they have to work 50 hours a week just to be able to afford to pay the tuition to take my class? Why can't we educate the children of the world because we can't find the $8 billion it would cost to put them all in primary school, but we can spend $40 billion a year on golf?
I guess the real question is what's wrong with not just the economy of the world, but the value system? There's a person in my community who drives her Hummer H3 to the local independent organic foods co-op. What the fuck part of the equation is she not getting? And why isn't she getting it? Why do we buy half-million dollar homes for our families and then work 80 hours a week to be able to afford them, so we can't spend time with the other people who live in them with us? My husband and I often worked opposing schedules because our respective trades required it. The month after we were married, we pretty much only saw each other awake on weekends, when we were both cranky and pressured. When I lost my contract at the end of the year, I tried to cancel Christmas. My husband, hurried home by his manager who was wise enough to hear the anxiety in my voice, curled up next to me on the couch and reminded me what I had forgotten: We may never have any money, he assured me, but we will always be rich. Those twelve words are words I still cherish more than just about anything, even now that he is gone. Because, more than he knew it, more than he wanted to admit, he was right. We were rich. We had each other.
And how the hell do you put a dollar value on that?