STAUNTON, Va. — Sarah Pool sings loudly in the car, escapes into books and tries, best as she can, not to think too much about the monster outside her door.
The one who demands every extra cent she earns. The one she keeps trying to appease, but fears she will never be free of. The one she acquired when she was 25, pregnant, and determined to make a good life for the baby on the way.
Three years ago, when she finished her master's degree, Sarah's student loans totaled $60,000. She has paid steadily ever since and now owes $69,000 — more than twice the annual income she earns working as a children's librarian.
"I keep paying," the 31-year-old says. "But it's like pouring into a bucket with no bottom."
When Sarah was a home-schooled kid in rural Ohio, one of her heroes was the local librarian, who steered her toward Madeleine L'Engle and put aside new arrivals she thought Sarah might like. Seven years ago — after getting her undergrad degree in English from Malone University in Canton, Ohio — Sarah and a few friends moved to a farm near Harrisonburg, Va. She'd hoped to start a career where she could put her education to use, but had to settle for a job at a yarn-dyeing plant.
When her friends decamped back to Ohio after a couple years, Sarah decided to stay in the area, moving to nearby Staunton, where she worked part time as a library page and supplemented her income with shifts at a coffee shop.
Then came the positive pregnancy test and the realization that she had to do better. Her undergraduate degree didn't seem to be getting her anywhere, so she enrolled in graduate school to get a master's in education at nearby Mary Baldwin University.
Sarah went to school part time and continued to work at the library and coffee shop. Her boyfriend took care of their baby, Max, during the day and worked at a bakery overnight. Student loans took care of tuition, books and leftover living expenses.
In 2014, Sarah graduated with a 3.95 grade-point average, that $60,000 bill and, after a terrible student-teaching experience, the sinking feeling that teaching wasn't for her. "I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, what have I done?' " she remembers. A few months later, Sarah and her boyfriend broke up. The debt, and all of Max's expenses, were on her.
"I love my job because I feel like I help people. And it's tangible," says Sarah, who speaks softly as she brushes away her wavy hair to reveal a "Where the Wild Things Are" pin attached to her gray cardigan. Therapists told the parents of a little girl with developmental delays to take her to story time. The girl became so attached to Sarah that her parents would invite the librarian over for dinner. "She did better after they started bringing her all the time. Stories like that, where you're actually making a connection with people and you're touching them in some way, are really rewarding."
Sarah would not have this job, she knows, if she didn't have an advanced degree. Yet she has a hard time convincing herself that it was worth the price she continues to pay. Sarah is on an income-based repayment plan and pays about $280 a month. Without that income-based plan, she'd be paying $780.
She feels perpetually on the edge of peril — one car breakdown away from disaster. Sarah buys clothes for herself and Max almost exclusively at Goodwill. They don't have WiFi at home — only movies from the library for entertainment. No meals out or weekend getaways. When Sarah fantasizes about the future, what she dreams about is being able to pay more than the monthly minimum on her student loans.
"It's just a constant worry in my mind," she says of the debt. She has learned the hard way to bring it up sooner, rather than later, on dates. It has scared men off in the past, and she wants them to understand the dictating factor in her bare-bones lifestyle. Some hit the door right away. Others casually mention that they owe just as much or even more. Then Sarah starts thinking about their student loans combined. "That's over $100,000," she'll calculate. "That's a lot of money. 'I'm glad you get it, but . . ..' "
The glimmer of hope Sarah clings to is her enrollment in a public service student loan forgiveness program that would clear her remaining debt if she puts in seven more years of work with the government and continues to make payments on time. But she's heard horror stories of borrowers being disqualified from the program — which is available to people who work for the government or certain nonprofits after they have paid their loans on time for 10 years — because of a paperwork error. And she's terrified the program will be quietly eliminated. (President Trump's 2018 budget proposal did suggest cutting it for new borrowers but would still forgive debts of people currently enrolled.)
Not having the program, she says, would "kind of end my life. I'll be paying student loans until I'm dead, basically. Which is really scary."
In the first five years of his life, Sarah and Max moved six times and wound up living with multiple roommates. "It was just really tough," she says. "I wanted to have a stable place for him." When a house across the street from her best friend went on the market last summer for just over $100,000, Sarah held her breath and applied for a mortgage.
"And I still don't really understand how I got approved," Sarah says while sitting on a hand-me-down couch in that house, which now belongs to her. There are cheerful yellow walls and no rugs on the floors, but Max, now 5 years old, wears slippers as he plays with his Legos and Sarah puts socks over her stockings for an extra layer of padding and warmth. "I'm still nervous that they'll be like: 'Wait a minute, we've made a huge mistake. You have to move out immediately.' "
Though there aren't any luxuries, Sarah says she and Max don't lack anything they really need. And what they have, now, is an extra bedroom and love to spare. Max, social and chatty, is constantly clamoring for a younger sibling. Sarah adores children and every day encounters "so many sweet kids that just want somebody to care about them." She has started taking classes to prepare to be a foster parent.
When she can block out anxiety about the debt, what Sarah feels, mostly, is lucky. She lives in a town that feels like home, has a job she loves and is the mother of a healthy, happy, charismatic little boy.
Plus she's got music and books, and that flickering faith that if she keeps working hard, life will somehow turn out all right.