Originally created 08/17/97

Records vanished outright

Pretend you're a kid again.

The coming school year is here, looming like a giant ship about to take you aboard.

School was like the Navy my father described - regimented, hierarchical and contradictory. It was both liberating and confining. Loud and quiet. The sort of place where you complain about the food, yet look forward to lunch.

And, as in military service, you enjoyed no privacy. You were always being watched.

From the earliest days in our earliest classes they told us our transgressions would follow us the rest of our days, immortalized on a "permanent record."

Those who didn't toe the line faced a grim fate, an adulthood standing in bread lines in tattered coats, collars turned up to fend off a perpetual chilly rain.

All because no one would hire us. All because they opened up a file and saw a full list of petty classroom crimes.

This made sense because it was consistent with the same Judgment Day scenario spelled out so often in our Sunday school classes.

That's why I knew my criminal record - the only time in 12 years I was sent to the principal's office - must be recorded on my first-grade rap sheet.

The crime? Entertaining my classmates by putting a piece of bread on my head during lunch.

I was sent alone to the principal's office. I opened the big door, walked over to a chair in front of the secretary's desk and sat there. An hour passed.

No one asked why I was there. (And, nurturing an inherent, though not yet understood idea of the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination, I kept my mouth shut.)

Finally, I got up and quietly returned to class.

No licks, no lecture. And no doubt that they knew I was there and had decided just to scare me.

The years have passed, but always I wondered - What did my record say?

There was only one way to find out. I called my old school.

The long distance operator at directory assistance couldn't help. The school no longer existed. I asked for the county school board office.

My old school, I was told, was now used as a storage building. Some of it had been torn down.

"What about the records?" I asked. "What about my record?"

"I can go back into the microfilm," a kindly clerk said. "It might tell me if you were a student. It also might tell me your address and whether you'd had your shots. But you already know that, so what's the point?"

"I just want to know what was on my permanent record," I confessed. "Don't you have a file?"

She laughed. It was a patient chuckle.

"You know," she said, "about once a month, somebody like you will call and ask me that same question."

"And what do you tell them?" I asked.

"I tell them whatever we had on you we threw away 30 years ago."

I hung up relieved.

And if heaven works the same way, I'm taking harp lessons.

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