Professor Bolin, or Brianne, as she tells her students to call her, might as well be invisible. When I arrive at the building at Columbia College in Chicago where she teaches composition, I ask the assistant at the front desk how to locate her. "Bolin?" she asks, sounding puzzled, as she scans the faculty list. "I'm sorry, I don't see that name." There is no Brianne Bolin to be found, even though she's taught four classes a year here for the past five years. She doesn't have a phone extension to her name, never mind an office.
The mother of a disabled eight-year-old boy named Finn, Bolin rushes in late to the lobby—she'd offered to give me a tour of her workplace. Her red hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and red electrical tape is wrapped around the left temple of her black geek-chic glasses; they broke a few months ago, and she can't afford a new pair. Bolin dressed up for the occasion: a black vest (from a thrift store, she'll tell me later), jeans (also thrift), and a brass anatomical version of a heart dangling at her throat from a thin black string. This is a rare and coveted evening off for her—Finn's father's fiancé agreed to babysit—but so far she's too agitated to enjoy it. She just learned that the woman and Finn's father, a blacksmith, are getting married in a few weeks, and they won't be able to take care of the boy during that time. It's all on her, again.
After she shows me the computer lab and some of the students' abstract photography and video installations, we settle down to talk in the student lounge, which features sleek modern furniture and high-rent views of the city's Grant Park and Lake Michigan. By this time, Bolin seems more angry than anxious. An adjunct professor, she earns $4,350 a class, never more than $24,000 a year, she says. At the moment, she has $55 in the bank and $3,000 in credit card debt. She is a month behind on the $975 rent she pays for a two-bedroom house next to railroad tracks in a western Chicago suburb, where every 20 minutes a train screeches by. Her bookshelves are full of poetry and philosophy from grad school, she can recite poems from memory, and she collects French 1960s LPs, but she must rely on food stamps to feed herself and her son. And because her job doesn't offer health insurance, they're both enrolled in Medicaid, the state and federal health-care program for the poor. (Coverage for a child Finn's age in Illinois caps at an income equaling 142 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $22,336.)
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Bolin, the English major, knows that's a cliché, but she can't help thinking it all the time. It wasn't supposed to be this way. In college at Eastern Illinois University downstate, she inhaled books—lived "in a trailer park with a friend, reading the novels of Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Duras, getting into Kerouac and Ginsberg and that Beat rebellion thing," she recalls. She earned a bachelor's and a master's, studying avant-garde poetry. She didn't expect to become an academic star—Eastern Illinois wasn't the University of Chicago—but she did assume she'd have a steady job with adequate pay. "I like nice things—I'm a little bourgeois," she says. "I thought at 35, I'd have clothes without holes in them and money in the bank, but I shop at Goodwill exclusively. I wear Banana Republic $5 suit jackets that wear out quickly because they've already been worn so much beforehand….
"My dreams did this to me. It's not a shameful thing, although I wonder if thereis something wrong with me."