Like most of the disappointments in my life, unemployment in college was painful, long-lasting and ultimately irrelevant because of a bunch of random stuff that happened concurrently.
You see, there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned about myself. Despite being an otherwise intelligent person, I have the unusual habit of making enormous mathematical errors, almost exclusively when it comes to estimating my financial health. I don’t know how or why this keeps happening, though I defend that while I have no better explanation, it (somehow) has nothing to do with just being very, very bad at math.
The gist being that I consistently underestimate how much money I have by hundreds or thousands of dollars, on a nearly weekly basis. As to the details, well, I’ll let the following example do the heavy lifting of explaining what I mean.
It was after my fruitless attempts to find work that things got just a bit worse.
Still reeling from my recent failures, I marched angrily into the Bursar’s Office, slapped my bill on the counter and demanded, “I already paid my bill in full before I even set foot on campus. Why do I still have a $1600 balance!?”
“There are a lot of factors that go into bills and fund availability,” the person – who I can only assume was an expert at “bursing” and had discussed these matters many times – said. “In any case, we can only apply the money we’ve received.”
“But I already paid all at once,” I argued, trying to make the issue clearer.
“Maybe the check bounced,” they said, and folded their hands atop the bill. “It happens when you have insufficient funds.”
“I have…” I smoothly corrected, “I had sufficient funds. More importantly, how can half a check bounce?”
“Well, it depends on…” They stopped suddenly, perhaps realizing that “bouncing half a check” was not a real thing. They then began studying the bill, which, despite leading to them making me look like an idiot in about half a second, was probably what they should have done from the start. They tapped the number on the bottom line. “Oh, I see. Do you know what parentheses mean?”
“Of course I do,” I answered, and made the shape in the air. “They’re like little ‘aside’ parts of writing.”
“No. In math.”
I like to think they didn’t see me mouthing, “Please excuse my dear Aunt Sue,” but I won’t pretend I was doing it very sneakily. “Um…you multiply the things inside by the things outside?” I ventured aloud.
The person at the counter (a “burse” or “bursarer,” I assume?) gave me a level look. “It means the amount is negative. A negative balance in other words, or a refund.”
I cleared my throat and stood up straighter, swallowing down several gallons of embarrassment. Despite the familiar taste I’d never quite gotten used to it. “Very good then. May I have my $1600, then?”
“You’ll receive a paper check by mail,” they answered. “I can look it up in the system if you’d care to give me your name.”
“I would not care to,” I said, snatching away the tuition statement that also contained that information. “I’ve taken up enough of your time,” I explained, though my real reasoning had more to do with not wanting a member of the school’s administration who knew I’d made such a boneheaded mistake to know my actual name.
It’s been quite a few years since then, and I can’t once remember leaving a room $1600 richer and feeling more horrible about it.
Now, I’m sure a few of you are more than a little confused at what’s going on here. After all, colleges aren’t renowned for handing over large checks to their students. If the rest of the college-going world had similar experiences to me, the flow of money is largely one-way, and often swift enough to create an undertow.
And yet refunds weren’t uncommon during my college years. One of the things people had neglected to explain to me was that some of the overflow from loans, grants and scholarships was intended to cover books, the things I’d practically bankrupted myself doing with my own funds. It wouldn’t be the last time someone neglected to tell me something so important, though it would be the single time the oversight involved me receiving an unexpected check.
Strictly speaking, I could have returned that money. And that was something I started doing in following years to keep my loans low(er)(ish). But at the time, I was young, stupid and too poor to afford even strip mall quality “Italian” takeout.
So that, in a nutshell, is how I went from an unemployed college student to…well, pretty much the same. Except by the end I had money again. Well, technically, the check didn’t arrive for another three days, so by the end I was alternating using the computer lab as the one place I could actually write anything and bothering the desk staff to see if mail had arrived for me at random points of the day.
My character arc really went full circle there, huh?