On the third floor of O’Neill, the long row of printers hums constantly. The smell of fresh ink on warm paper fills the air. Other students go about their business, stapling, hole-punching, consolidating, as though it is second nature to them. I, however, am standing completely still. The door to a huge storage cabinet is slightly ajar and I see that it is filled to the brim with ream after ream of copy paper. “How many pages is that?” I ask myself, amazed and transfixed, unable to recall ever seeing so much paper at once in my life.
In my mind, I am transported back to elementary school in my tiny town in rural Alabama. I am in fourth grade, sitting in a splintered, wooden chair in the back of the classroom, listening to my teacher announce to us that we would have to bring extra paper to school now because of tax cuts to the education budget by the state government.
Memories of having to spend hour after hour transcribing each question from the textbook onto my notebook paper–oftentimes cramming the last question and answer onto the tiny half-line at the very bottom so I would not have to use a new sheet of paper–bubble to the surface. Yes, this was the post-recession economy, and budget cuts had to be made everywhere, but anything that would benefit large corporations or millionaires remained almost totally pre-recession budget.
Alabama’s government is notorious for its corruption. Just last year, for example, the Governor resigned after being convicted of large-scale embezzlement of public funds. The fundamentalist Republicans that comprise the vast majority of the state government can do no wrong in the eyes of the silent majority. They achieve instant sainthood after promising to fight against things like the existence of abortion clinics and the presence of undocumented immigrants. They are “true Americans,” looking out for the good of everyone like shepherds watching over their flocks. Some shepherds.
Alabama’s poor education system only reinforces its deeply entrenched poverty, and cutting down on the already-insufficient funding for education exacerbated the situation. It was a slap in the face to me and to my fellow classmates. This particular sting said, “the money of the rich is worth more than the precious hours of your childhood.” We were degraded; we were nothing if not a nuisance. “But don’t they care about education?” you may ask. Of course they care about education: it’s how they were able to land such high-paying jobs so they could effectively ignore the problems of the masses. For that reason, they place their children in expensive private schools that are immune to budget cuts and policy changes. They have all the paper they need.
How sadistic, how selfish can someone be, to force kids who are already from some of the most impoverished backgrounds in the entire nation to pay out-of-pocket for what is supposed to be a free education? Many of my classmates didn’t have the money to buy more than a few stacks of notebook paper for the year, and when they ran out, they knew better than to try to ask their parents for more. Paper, like white caviar, seemed to be a luxury only the wealthy could afford to indulge in.
Explosive, deep-seated rage wells up in me like a tidal wave when I think of the time that was robbed from me by the selfishness of morally-desolate government officials (some of whom sat a few pews behind me every Sunday morning). It is something that can never, ever be bought back, even with an apology in the form of all the money in the world. Instead of pursuing my budding interest in writing, instead of reading another chapter of a book I was fascinated with, I was forced to copy down paragraph after paragraph so I could merely underline a few misspelled words. I remember how my hand would cramp up, how I would have to stop and massage my fingers as I wished I could be reading. Where is justice in the face of this? This, America, “land of the free”, is not the aristocracy of 16th-century Europe; it is supposedly a land where your hometown doesn’t set in stone your future, nor put a cap on your God-given potential. Supposedly.
This America is not the one I once knew and loved.
Amid the mechanical whir of the printers echoes a cavernous silence. The air is filled with the strains of a eulogy desperate for someone, anyone, to hear it, so I do not run from the tragic and unrefined. I lean against the cool metal of the storage cabinet, against the infinite reams of paper, and I close my eyes again, if only for a brief moment. I slip into the back pew just as the preacher begins to orate beautifully, poignantly, on a passage in Psalms. Sadness weighs unbearably heavy in the air, and there are no flowers, no hymns or organ music to distract from the heaviness. There is no casket displayed in front of the altar, because the occasion for mourning is impossibly abstract, elegiacally elusive, perhaps even nonexistent for some, for many. For all the precious time that was stolen from my classmates and me, I mourn. For my classmates themselves who will never have the opportunity to attend college, who will live the rest of their lives in our tiny town struggling to make ends meet, I mourn. For the lack of empathy in the hearts of those in power in my state, I mourn. Most of all, however, I mourn for the real America, my America, and for all the true and selfless things it stood for, which got lost in the ugly, ignoble struggle for power somewhere along the way.