Gabel | Student College Debt Relief Forgets | Perspectives

Rachel Gabel

I met one of my former students at lunch last week. I teach his high school English classes – his grade (12th grade) and the one he needs to pass to graduate (freshman English). I have taught in a handful of rural areas for about 15 years, the last in my current hometown of Wiggins. When I say rural, I taught in a high school for several years and graduated a class last year.

If you’re looking to learn about Greek mythology, cite bards or someone with charting abilities, then I’m not your girl. In the classroom, I’m always drawn to grumpy people who need encouragement and the occasional kick. Lauder is no exception.

If you’re assuming a kid old enough to drive and vote, and insist on learning freshman English and not necessarily enjoy class, your assumption is correct in that case anyway.

I also didn’t like classrooms as a child, and I vividly remember the late Mrs. Fran Henry sneering when she told me I should be a writer or a teacher. It wasn’t a smart move, and Mrs. Henry, who worked on the second floor of a Douglas County High School in the 1980s and 1990s, seemed to have the last laugh.

Lauder and I rode the struggle bus through To Kill a Mockingbird and A Streetcar Named Desire. We talk through MLA style and I use as much vocabulary as possible with welding and trucking examples. “When the mechanic saw that I had blown up Peterbilt’s turbo again and needed repairs, I had to calm his annoyance.”

He and his father were having lunch at Brush Wednesday. Oddly enough, we had Peterbilt in the shop before the silage started to get the brakes to work. He stopped to visit with us. He’s in his early 20s now, and while his classmates — who have room to spare when he graduates — may be finishing their undergraduate degrees or their first year in an office job somewhere, but Raudel is trucking.

He owns his own trucking company and contracts with local dairy farms to deliver compost to farmers. He employs several drivers who work in the state and other states. He’s making on-time payments for several trucks and trailers, each of which is similar in size to the average mortgage in a dead end.

He does all the required Department of Transportation paperwork and gets ahead of the $5 diesel fuel the truck burns. He followed the rules of the road and contributed to the local economy, agriculture and the people who depended on him.

While President Joe Biden is forgiving student loans, we are ignoring kids like Laudell and the value they bring to their communities.

When FFA (formerly an acronym for Future Farmers of America, but now a stand-alone acronym) needed a sponsor, they would call Raudel and he would write a check. People like Lauder buy children’s livestock items from the stands at the county fair’s junior livestock sale. Instead of going to chains in big towns, the Lauder family of the world buys oil filters, welding rods, tires, fuel and groceries at locally owned stores.

The world benefits from those who, like me, seek higher education. But without skilled tradespeople—welders, plumbers, truck drivers, linemen, ranchers, electricians, heavy equipment operators, and workers from all walks of life—the world grinds to a halt.

If we don’t offer farming classes, craft classes, and home economics classes, we’re failing Raudels and kids like him who find value in balancing their checkbooks rather than tackling the “x.” We should never prioritize children choosing the college path over the skills path. We should never expect Lauder and kids like him to pay while we pay off student loan debt for free. Forgiving student loan debt doesn’t create jobs, nor does it address the larger issue between investment and return on higher education.

When we asked for our check, the waitress told us it had been paid and she told me it was a courtesy to my kid who thanked me for letting him finish high school. We shook his and his dad’s hand and provided him with some freight work on site. A rancher friend of mine told me after hearing this story, “Boy, it’s called paying off student debt.”

Rachel Gabel writes about agriculture and rural issues. She is Assistant Editor of The Fence Post Magazine, the region’s preeminent agricultural publication. The daughter of the state’s oil and gas industry and a member of one of the state’s 12,000 cattle-raising families, Gabel’s children’s books are used in hundreds of classrooms to teach students about agriculture.


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