For the fourth annual Nation Student Writing Contest, we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how the recession had affected them. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-four states. We chose one college and one high school winner and eight finalists total. The winners are Jim Miller of Henderson State University in Arkansas and Deborah Ghim of Buffalo Grove High School in Illinois. You can read the essays at TheNation.com/students. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $250 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. This contest was made possible by the BIL Charitable Trust to recognize and reward the best in student writing and thinking. —The Editors
The Natural Order of a Small Town
by Jim Miller
The strangest thing about the recession if you live in Arkansas is that things seem pretty much the same as they were before with the exception of a few subtle differences. It just seems like everyone else in the country is catching up.
The smallest library in the entire United States resides in a rural town in Arkansas, and it has no books in it. There is a blue tarp over the roof because it started leaking a few years ago. Small towns in the area are a lot like this tiny 15-by-24-foot library. These erstwhile communities are disappearing, leaving nothing but road signs, with lonely post offices, empty parks and closed gas stations. Public school districts have gotten so spread out that it’s getting more and more difficult to afford diesel for the buses to pick children up for school. These are the kids living on dirt roads an hour away from the nearest city. Their parents are the ones losing the jobs.
The economic life of a small town in Arkansas has always been precarious, but the recession has greatly accelerated the decline. There are still the same number of empty houses on stretches of highway. It’s just that now you see more used vehicles for sale. Older generations believe that this is the natural order of things, like when a well dries up and a new one springs up somewhere else to take its place. This is why they save their Folgers coffee cans and anything else that might help to make life easier.
Growing up in areas like this is becoming harder, and so the numbers of young are dwindling, and small, rural areas are drying up. A graduating class of forty students has become a class of twenty, and the only explanation is that there are no local jobs. There are no local jobs because the timber industry is no longer what it used to be. In high school, kids look forward to having an office view of the interstate while sitting behind the wheel of an eighteen-wheeler that they might be lucky enough to own one day. Or maybe they will nab a job at the Willie Nelson water-bottling factory in the next town over, where new mothers drive to renew their WIC vouchers so they can purchase baby formula and blocks of government cheese. Some women, like my mother, sew cuffs on firemen’s gloves in a factory. They are happy to have a job with good insurance. It’s not the type of insurance that will help you quit smoking a pack a day unless you’re clinically depressed, but all the same it’s good insurance. It numbs the realization that you are hardly getting paid anything.
I guess that one thing almost every employable person in this area can look forward to is applying for a job at Wal-Mart. The company was born in Arkansas, and it is always taking applications because it’s capable of weathering the storm. This is more than can be said for Affiliated Southwest, an Arkansas food distributor that abruptly declared bankruptcy earlier this summer, leaving hundreds of small-town groceries sweating bullets and damning the economy. Most of these stores simply readjusted to the situation by going with other food distributors in neighboring states, but many small business owners lost their retirements in the process.
Students and others throughout the country are being encouraged to continue their education, and many of them do it by taking out school loans or maxing out their mother’s credit cards so she has to take out loans herself, either from the credit union at the Social Security office where she works or at the bank where her husband used to deposit the proceeds from his air-conditioning business before it went belly up.
Here and there you might find an independent farmer who still remembers what it’s like to be self-sufficient. And then there are people like my father, who purchased cattle as a life insurance policy, because insurance companies won’t touch a man with a pre-existing condition. All throughout the country there are now people resolved to live their lives simply out of necessity and not want. In the end maybe this is a good thing. Maybe sooner or later a new spring will bloom.
Strawberry Fields Forever
by Deborah Ghim
Seventeen years ago, when my mother was pregnant with me, all she ever wanted to eat was strawberries–at least according to the stories that I’ve been told. Some of them involve trips to the local Jewel at 2 in the morning. Others involve detailed descriptions of a very irate pregnant woman and her demands for Godiva chocolate-covered strawberries. My father jokes that even in the womb I had expensive tastes.
And it seems that little has changed since 1991. Though I’ve matured some since I was a fetus, my strawberry cravings have remained the same. Because I don’t really have an appetite in the morning, my breakfast has become a regular routine: ten medium-size strawberries, one-quarter cup of fat-free yogurt and four ice cubes thrown into a blender.
When the recession hit its peak this past year, my father called an emergency family meeting. The Ghim family, he announced, was going to start cutting back. It was a well-prepared and predictable speech, as was the family’s reaction. I vowed to stop leaving my laptop on at night, and Douglas, my little brother, promised to turn the faucet off while brushing his teeth. These were minor sacrifices, my father reasoned, things we should have been doing anyway.
A couple of days passed and the economy continued to plummet, but still the Ghim family did not cut back. Douglas did not turn off the faucet while brushing his teeth. I forgot to turn off my laptop every night. It wasn’t as though we were too well-off to feel the financial strains. On the contrary, we could easily define ourselves as lower middle class in terms of income. It’s just that with our house paid off and no debts to haunt us, the world of foreclosures and eviction notices seemed relatively remote. The recession merely meant that I had to car-pool more often to save gas money.
But one day my father came home from the grocery store with a solemn look on his face. I went to help him put the foodstuff away in the kitchen. When I turned to stow the eggs in the refrigerator, he put his hand gently on my arm and told me in a quiet voice that he hadn’t bought any strawberries this time. "They were $6.50 a pound," he said incredulously. "That’s five times what it used to be when you were born."
I tried not to laugh. He was being overly dramatic. I said that it was really OK, but he proceeded to apologize several times throughout the day. "You don’t understand," he told me. "When I got married, I told myself that my kids would get to eat whatever they wanted. They wouldn’t have to go through what I did. I might not be able to buy you an iPhone, but I should damned well be able to buy my daughter some strawberries."
A month later, the price of fresh strawberries dropped to $2.25 per pound. I know this because when I came home from school, my father was in the kitchen, washing fifteen pounds of strawberries. I watched as he cut off each stem. Half of them would be in the fridge for me to eat that week, and the other half he’d put in a Ziploc bag to freeze for later.
"Why don’t we just buy frozen strawberries?" I asked. "This is a lot of work for something that they already sell in a bag."
"My daughter is going to eat fresh strawberries," he sniffed. "Nothing with those nasty preservatives. I may be too poor to buy you strawberries next week when they get up to $6 again, but I can still provide for you."
I don’t ever remember hugging my dad for as long as I did that day. Since then, I’ve remembered to turn off my laptop every night before I go to bed. For me, the recession’s impact has come more on the human level. I know economic struggles are real, but my father has shown me an aspect of the recession defined by responsibility and compassion.
I have college looming in the near future, and I’m terrified that I won’t be able to afford it. Still, I know it’ll all work out. I know that I’ll be responsible with my money, not just for my future but for my father. I’ll always remember the work he did to provide for his family. And most of all, I’ll always remember the way he smiled as he stowed two Ziploc bags full of strawberries in the garage freezer, humming "Strawberry Fields Forever."