An unexpected turn of events led a passionate educator at a school on the North Shore into a spiral of desperation.
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I became homeless this past year.
I didn’t do it to prove a political point, or to discover enlightenment — even though it turned out to be an enlightening and life-changing experience.
I wasn’t trying to learn empathy or to become a social activist.
It was simply because, as a teacher with student loans, a bad turn of events sent my finances wildly out of control.
I found myself looking at the possibility of total financial ruin, and I had to fight back.
A few years ago, I learned that I was being laid off from my school on the North Shore. According to the principal, enrollment was falling and the union’s ‘last-in-first-out’ policy meant that I was the low man on the totem pole.
Then, two weeks before the school year ended, my truck threw a rod. The engine was shot. The week after that, my landlord contacted my roommates and I to inform us that the owner of the house we were renting was reclaiming the property. We had 30 days to move out.
Suddenly, I needed transportation, a job, and a place to live — immediately.
On Craigslist I found what seemed to be a solid used car that an exchange student at Brigham Young University was selling before he moved back home to New Zealand. Being that I was in a hurry and generally believe that Mormons practice what they preach when it comes to values like honesty and integrity, I put $3,500 on my credit card to purchase the car.
The car broke down on the way home. The guy never returned my calls or emails, and I realized that I’d only ever met him in a dorm parking lot. In my anxious state, I hadn’t noticed the address on the title was different from where we met. Within a week, his number had been disconnected and he disappeared.
In the three months that followed, I put $2,500 in repairs on my credit card, and on the way home from a $1,500 electrical repair, the head gasket went out. The engine was going to need $3,500 as part of a month-long rebuild.
I was in crisis mode, bleeding money, and still without a job or vehicle.
At the same time, a friend of mine was moving to Brazil and looking to sell his very reliable Toyota Tacoma. I took out a loan and purchased the truck for $7,000. In what seemed like overnight, I’d gone from nearly $0 debt, to $14,000.
I took a low-interest personal loan to pay off the balance on my credit card. I moved into a studio in town and then found a job, 23 miles away. Then gas prices skyrocketed. And having just graduated with a master’s degree in education, my student loans came due. Despite a reduction in the monthly rate on my student loans, once I bought groceries, I was running a deficit every month.
Any additional expenses like vehicle repairs or registration went on my credit card, and there was no hope of paying them off.
Maybe I did live above my means — I do have an iPhone — but it certainly didn’t feel like it. I don’t really eat out, shop, or date. My furniture was mostly salvaged from the side of the road, and a good percentage of my clothes came from Goodwill. My biggest offenses: I eat healthy and try to buy local.
I’d like to think that I have greater earning potential. I’ve thought seriously at times about leaving Hawaii, but after living in this community and teaching these kids, I feel committed to this place. And if I leave, I question whether my students will have a teacher who will prepare them effectively. That scares me for our future.
I did eventually manage to climb back to financial stability. At the beginning of this month, after 10 months of living in the back of a truck and showering at the YMCA, I moved into an apartment.
I am not going to take this experience and run away without having achieved anything more than bailing myself out. I feel more dedicated than ever to Hawaii’s education system.
Even though teacher pay is what left me so vulnerable to this predicament, if someone were to give me a choice between earning a bigger salary pay and fixing all the other factors ailing our educational system, I’d choose to address the other issues first. I say that because I put learning first, and because I don’t want anyone to think that I am just crying about my own troubles.
I don’t really care that I had to live in my truck for a year. I care that our education system is broken.
But as part of that broken system, we are creating a situation in which smart, ambitious, creative people feel that they cannot achieve personal success as teachers in Hawaii.
In the past two months, I said goodbye to a half-dozen great teachers who all left because they felt they could not imagine developing professionally and they could not afford to support a family here. Each of those teachers was a highly honored program leader who had been teaching in Hawaii for between five and 10 years.
I spoke with one teacher who watched as her nest egg, built up by working two jobs, disappeared after she quit her second job waiting tables on dinner shifts in order to take on additional responsibilities at her school.
The high cost of living in Hawaii protects the way of life here. It takes either an extended family, or a very high-paying job to survive financially. That dynamic works great for people with good jobs and for the population that they provide for. But in education, where Hawaii needs to attract and retain talented teachers from a wider pool, we have to start looking at teacher pay as an issue that is seriously threatening the quality of our education system and that is pinning us to the ground.
I believe we can improve teacher pay even as we resolve every other deficiency that is standing in the way of having an excellent education system in Hawaii. Fighting those battles may be a long, hard road, but it can’t be any harder than living in my truck while working in such a difficult profession.
Michael Wooten is a former sergeant in the U.S. Army and University of California Berkeley graduate who came to Hawaii as a Teach For America teacher in 2008. He earned his master’s degree in education from the University of Hawaii and currently teaches English and film at James Campbell High School in Ewa Beach.
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