I'm a Teacher, and I Do Whatever It Takes to Make the Hunger Go Away

06/16/2015 09:13 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016
Elizabeth Mach

I am a teacher. Here's a typical day for me:

Every day I get up at 5:30 AM to get ready for work. Caffeine is my first friend of the day. If I have not had the money to go grocery shopping within the past month, I pop a couple of Sudafed pills to both curb my appetite and give me the energy to get through my day.

I drop off my daughter at 7:00 AM, an hour before school starts, in a deal I have made with her principal, and often she is the first person at her school. She must wait outside no matter what the weather or temperature is, until an adult comes and unlocks the door. She often knows better than to ask for breakfast, and she holds her own hunger inside until she either gets a lunch or sneaks off to the nurse to get a snack in another deal I have made with the school. I don't let myself feel hungry, and coffee, if it is available, helps me put those feelings in the back of my mind.

My daughter worries when I don't eat, but I can't eat often. I look at food in the fridge and put it back, wanting her to eat first. She often does the same, I noticed. We don't eat out, but sometimes we share a sandwich at Subway because it is still cheaper than buying all the ingredients to make a meal. We eat a lot of potatoes and cheap noodles. We never eat meat, which has turned me into a vegetarian. I can't afford to buy a lunch at the school where I work, so I eat a lot of peanut butter sandwiches during the school year. I make too much money for food assistance, so I subsidize my budget with occasional trips to the food pantry, but never in my own community, and I never let my daughter know. I do whatever it takes to make the hunger go away. It's true that it gets easier to live with hunger over time; I know because I have been doing it for quite a few years now.

It's hard to be 13 and the daughter of a teacher -- really hard. We don't go on vacations, we don't take driving trips, and we often ride our bikes to save gas money. My daughter loves to figure skate, and she has the talent for it, but she only skates when there is free ice time. Skating is her release and her opportunity to forget about everything else.

We shop at dollar stores and discount places. We shop at thrift stores for clothes, but even this is a great luxury. We don't ever buy clothes new. Most of my daughter's clothes (and they are not fancy) were bought by her grandmother. She was very happy when I bought her new tights for $5 from Walgreens for Christmas. And this year, thankfully, a dollar store had warm fuzzy pants, also for $5, that she was thrilled to get as a present. These are luxury items for us, just as much as an ice cream cone at Dairy Queen is.

We have health insurance, sort of. In my district, insuring the two of us would cost $800 a month for health insurance, so I use the ACA health care exchange for my daughter. It still costs me $311 a month for her insurance with my subsidy, which is more than my car payment and nearly half my rent. Needless to say, going to the doctor is a luxury. I had an ear infection for three months, and my daughter often doesn't tell me when she is in a lot of pain either, knowing that the co-pays will mean less money for food for ourselves or her cats and our dogs. An accident that required stitches left us $1,500 in debt after the insurance was paid, and I continue to chip away at that bill $50 at a time.

I have bone-crushing student loan debt. It keeps me awake at night, and although I'm very grateful for the recent programs that have been made available, like Public Service Loan Forgiveness, I also feel like I am completely stuck as a result. I must work as a teacher to get loan forgiveness, but I don't make enough to make basic ends meet. I am required by law to pay for my own pension (9.8% of my salary), but because I still have to pay my student loans, I can't save any additional money for anything else.

I once spent $5 on lottery tickets out of desperation, despite knowing as a math teacher that the probability of winning was essentially zero. But I still teach, hoping that it gets better for me, for my students, and for my own kid who falls into that strange not-rich, not-poor-enough no man's land. There is no middle class that we fit into.