Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Where the Road Goes...

When I was young, I made a mistake... a mistake that will haunt me for the rest of my life.

Before I continue, I want to fill in some of the backstory.  I did not have an idyllic childhood.  After my brother left, my family began to fall apart.  We fought.  We argued.  We blamed each other.  Our family was fractured.  As the youngest of a heartbroken family, I was mostly left to my own devices.  I cultivated a fierce sense of independence and roamed the streets of Orlando on my bicycle in search of something that would fill the void.  Luckily I found many friends who would become the family-unit that I so desperately wanted.  Even still, I think I grew up far before my time.

Fast forward a few years.  On the surface, it might seem like I lived a charmed life.  I was on the honor roll, an AP student, participated in after-school activities, won awards for volunteering, writing and artwork, I was the youngest board member of a church, and worked part-time for not one newspaper, but two.  But at home, my parents and I fought constantly or ignored each other completely.  I think part of my good deeds were to overcompensate for what wasn't there.

I became jaded with the state of journalism and wanted to pursue my passion as an artist.  I really didn't know what that would entail.  But I saw an exhibition at our local art museum of Suzanne McClelland's work and read that she had went to college at the School of Visual Arts.  I had also seen a movie called, Art City: Making It In Manhattan, and after some research, discovered that some of the artists featured in it were faculty members.  A loose plan formed.  It was more of a dream than a plan.  The idea of leaving everything behind for a city that I had only seen in movies was crazy!  And then September 11th happened and I knew that I had to make my way there, no matter what.  I wanted to be a part of the healing process and I wanted to be an artist in The Art City.  I applied for every scholarship and grant possible and met with a recruiter for what would become my future alma mater.

My parents, particularly my father, did not approve of my decision.  But at that point we were at each other's throats so much that I wasn't the only one relieved when there was a majority of the Eastern Seaboard between us.

That first year was one of the most definitive of my life.  For the first time, I was able to embrace my independence.  I worked hard.  I played hard.  And somewhere in between, my parents and I started talking again.  Becoming an adult, I realized that they were just human and they were people too.  Just because they wore the titles, "Mom" and "Dad" didn't mean that they were superheroes with the ability to right all the wrongs in the world.  Even still, there was a long way to go before things would be completely repaired.

And... that's when I made the worst mistake of my life.

I got a letter taped to my door that said my funding had run out and that if I didn't act, my things would be removed and thrown on the curb.  I met with my financial advisor that informed me that due to budget cuts and funding issues, many of my scholarships were either discontinued or had run out.  The only way to continue was to borrow more money.  She said that if I wanted to be a successful artist, I needed a degree and without the additional loans, I wouldn't be able to get my degree.  I would be a failure.  I would be a loser.  I had sold some of my paintings and was already building my name.  I didn't want to stop learning.  I didn't want to stop my career before it even really started.  I thought that if I could keep selling my work, that I could pay it off without a problem.  All I needed to do was get a co-signer for my loan.  I was panicking and scared.  Even though I had grown up in a lot of ways, I wasn't prepared for this.  So, I encouraged my parents to co-sign on the loans.  I think that they thought that if they didn't sign the loans, they'd lose me like my brother.

After reading all this, you might be questioning... so what's the big deal?  You signed a few papers.  You got your parents to autograph some forms.  So what?

What I naively did was enter into indentured servitude, not only for myself, but for my parents as well.  The amount that I owe in my student loans is staggering.  I've ruined my credit.  I've ruined their credit. I've ruined their retirement.  Even if I live to 100, I will never be able to repay the debt in its entirety.  Even if I go bankrupt, the student loan debt will remain.  I could live high on the hog and max out a sack of credit cards and then file for bankruptcy and with the help of high-interest, low-limit credit cards, be able to restore glowing credit within 7 years.  The same cannot be said about student loans.

I carry this weight around every day.  Knowing that my dad still has to work, even though his hands are crippled by arthritis, adds to the everyday anxiety.  I try not to let it get to me too much.  I try to focus and visualize on how I can do my best and hopefully, by some miracle, overcome this obstacle.

This overwhelming pressure certainly has an affect.  As we build our business, this challenge has shaped how we operate and has prevented us from doing many of the things that we would have liked to do.  In some ways, it has been a good thing.  It has forced us to be creative and utilize the resources at our disposal in interesting ways.  Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.

One of the recent changes that this has had an influence in is that we won't be able to help my family out at trade shows anymore.  I have been working shows for almost ten years for Green Girl Studios.  Some people don't even know my name... just that I work for "Green Girl".  But realistically it's too expensive for me to leave the store for long stretches of time at this stage in the game.  I have to be proactive and hands on.  I also want to devote all my attention to making sure that Allegory Gallery has strong foundations to grow from.  I have to embrace my own path completely.  It was a hard decision and one that wasn't considered lightly, but one that had to be made.  I love and support my sister and her husband and their company and will continue to promote them and their work endlessly.  There are no hard feelings or ill will.

As I contemplate early mistakes and make major changes, I also must also acknowledge that despite hardship, there is room for limitless possibilities and potential.

It's time to see where the road goes...

13 comments:

KeRobinson said...

Hi Andrew! Love your writing style :) Just watched this yesterday, it has power 4 all of us. quoted:
"Nick is one of the best examples of winning the hand you're dealt he's ever encountered. How did Nick choose to make the most of his life? Watch and see."

Read more: http://www.oprah.com/oprahs-lifeclass/How-Nick-Vujicic-Triumphed-Against-All-Odds-Video#ixzz2LRgJ9qFo

Pine Ridge Treasures said...

Andrew - I wish you the very best in your new journey. I can tell that you are a person who tends to be hard on yourself. We make the best decisions we can in life based on all the available facts and the circumstances at the time. Please don't frame these decisions as mistakes. It may not have worked out the way you wanted, but it does not mean you did something wrong. :-)

Deryn Mentock said...

Hey Andrew...this is a wonderful and heartfelt post. We all have our battles, even when it looks good on the outside. I was so glad to read you had reconciled with your parents...family is everything. Fight on!

Margot Potter said...

I went back to college in my late twenties. There was no scholarship money or money from my family to pay for school. The loan rates back then were low for the time, but compared to the current rates astronomical. Once I graduated, Magna cum Laude as the outstanding major in my field, I consolidated my loans. It made sense, of course, but in doing so I locked myself into an 8.5% interest rate. Combine that with a deferrment during a time of reinvention, and it has buried me too. You see, Sallie Mae tacked the interest during that deferrment to my loan principal. I have been paying this originally 30,000 dollar loan off for 14 years and only recently made a dent in the principal. When it's all said and done, I will have paid the original loan amount back multiple times.

It's a racket. I have a daughter, AP and honors classes, award winner, smart, focused and driven and I have no idea how we're going to pay for her college. We're still paying back my loan.

I feel your pain, dear friend. But I also feel that attending school and excelling was my way of finding my inner strength and self confidence after my own unhappy, fractured childhood. So there's that.

You are an inspiration, keep swimming.

Love
Margot

Tracy said...

Thank you for sharing this, Andrew. It is a testament to your perseverance and optimism, and at the same time a cautionary tale. I have kids entering the "to college or not college" stage and I have always been adamant that if they want to go we'll find a way to fund it. But, I keep hearing nightmarish student loan stories. It is good to be informed about potential pitfalls!
XO

Andrew Thornton said...

Hey Ke! Thanks for sharing and for your kind words.

Andrew Thornton said...

Hey Lisa, thank you for your words of encouragement. I am hard on myself, but I usually try to use it as a way to improve and better myself. I wish that I could say that it wasn't a mistake, but my actions definitely had repercussions that not only affected me, but impacted my parents as well. I have learned from the mistakes in the past and I guess if there was a silver-lining to this problem, that's one of them.

Andrew Thornton said...

Hi Deryn. It was a hard post to write, but I needed to say it. It's something that has been in the background of most of my adult life and has had major impacts on how I live my life.

Someone recently said that they wished they had my life. While I do feel blessed that in many ways my life is rich and very fulfilling, it's not as picture perfect as people might imagine. Like you said, "we all have our battles".

I feel really fortunate that even though I've been the source of so much hardship for my parents, that we were able to focus on what's important and start building a better life together. I think that having my brother return was definitely a major step in repairing old wounds.

We actually had a really amazing conversation the other night. I was talking to them about my plans for the future and my mom said, "Who are you? You sound so mature." I think they realized that even though there were set-backs, the future is bright and full of possibility.

I think that the story of my family has been one about falling apart and being put back together again. We are stronger because of each other. We are brighter and better because of each other. And I am thankful that I have my family. It took us awhile, but I think we're finally finding a place where we can move forward... together.

Andrew Thornton said...

Hey Margot! I'm sorry to hear that you too are dealing with the crushing debt of higher education. While some countries have their fair share of problems, I think we should take a page out of their book about making higher education an affordable option that won't cripple its future citizens and promote attainable education for anyone who is interested.

Depending on what Avalon wants to do, I think there are a a lot of options. The benefit of having you as a mother is that you can make informed decisions on how to proceed and give Avalon the best start possible. My parents and I were not in the best place when I had to make my decisions and I think those problems in communication really shaped how I went about solving my problems at the time. If we were more supportive and open at the time, I think we might have been able to avoid a lot of these problems. If there's anything that I can do, let me know. I'll be happy to write letters of recommendation or act as a sounding board.

I believe in education. I believe in the power of higher learning. But I do think that I could have approached it differently.

I wish you the best and appreciate your story and support! You're awesome! And you guys stay strong and swim together!

Andrew Thornton said...

Hi Tracy! I hope that people can learn from my experiences and hopefully avoid some of the hardships and heartache that I have inflicted upon myself and those closest to me.

I think that college is an amazing experience and while I don't think it's necessarily essential depending on the career one chooses... I think there are a lot of smart things that can be done to make those decisions and do it in a way that will give you all the best options. I would start by opening a dialogue about what their interests are and what they think that they might want to do in life. For some it's easier than others. For others it takes time and trial an error to figure out their true calling. If they want to become doctors, then there's really a very set course on how to achieve that. Of course there are alternatives, but for the most part, there's usually a very linear progression for achieving that goal. To be an artist though or work in an arts related field, I think there are more options on how to maximize your possibilities and there are wonderful experiences out there that are an alternative to traditional BFA programs and can be just as enriching. No one has ever asked to see my degree.

Best of luck with everything and if you have any questions, I'll be happy to help. I've learned a lot from my mistakes and hope others can too.

Sharon Driscoll said...

Let the wind gently fill your sails and keep a firm grip on your rutter. Your "life boat" is heading in the right direction.

Andrew, you've a sound plan and are making good choices. In the long run, speaking as a parent, all the trials and pain our children can cause is to be expected. No one gets by without it and as you fought those battles and grew you and your parents both look back and realize it's where you needed to be at the time (no matter how unpleasant) and that the lessons learned were important ones. There is a saying, "The history will repeat itself until the lesson is learned." Seems to me too you need to reclassify the "mistake" as a lesson you learned and grew from.

Bravo! and thank you for the thoughtful post.

Jeanne aka Gem Chick said...

Thank you so much for this heartfelt post, Andrew. I met you a few years ago when you were representing your family at the Long Island Bead Show. And thoroughly enjoyed chatting with you.
I feel your pain. (and Margot's) I think college loans are a huge scam. When my daughter started school 4 years ago we were encouraged to get the governement loans through Sallie Mae - 8.5% for parents, less for students. The caveat - students could only borrow $5000. As the parent I borrowed the other $25000 she needed for that first year. As I approach retirement, I still have most of that principal left to pay off. Luckily, my daughter has left her small town roots for NYC and attends a CUNY school with tuition under $6000/year, which is affordable for me. She works and pays her own rent.
I am happy for you that you have your family's support. And wish you well with your new venture. I hope to be able to visit sometime as I drive through western PA.

Sara Oehler said...

As I have been making my way through school, the burden of debt has had me extremely worried. I start at ASU in the fall and am so hopeful that a scholarship will come through to help with the cost.

It is inspiring to see you create your own business. Sometimes we have to let things go to make room for new and amazing experiences!

Good luck, my friend!