November 30, 2008

And Then Kafka Walked In


It looks like the grudge was lying in wait for about twenty-two years. Guess I should’ve figured it would come back and get me one of these days—even if I wasn’t the one responsible.

            Everything was going just ducky. The teaching job I’d been offered had finally been confirmed. I had a reading list together. I met the chair of the department and a few other faculty members. I filled out a mountain of paperwork. Everything was set. A year in advance I was even putting my lectures together. It was just a one semester gig, but I was actually looking forward to it. Hell, I’d even dropped a small bundle on audio versions of the books I was planning to use.

            Then the letter arrived. Unassuming little thing from the office of the university president. As I opened the envelope I expected it would be a hearty “welcome aboard” form letter.

            Instead, what I found inside was a note informing me that they couldn’t find any record of my masters degree. See, there’s this place I never heard of before called the “National Student Clearinghouse.” It’s just as scary as it sounds. If you’ve gone to college, you’re in that database, and anyone at all can look you up. The Clearinghouse is meant primarily for use by prospective employers to make sure the applicant in question really attended the schools and received the degrees he claimed on his resume.

            Well, for all their alleged thoroughness it seems they had no record of me. And without proof of that degree, I could kiss that teaching job goodbye. The school wasn’t in the habit of letting just any schlub off the street teach their students—and justifiably so.

            It was clearly a simple glitch, I thought. A computing error or some kind of bureaucratic snafu. My friend Daniel tells me it’s more common than you’d think. People graduate, get jobs, live their lives for years with the understanding that they have this or that degree, only to find out a decade later that they were a credit short, or a name had been misspelled, making their supposed credentials worthless. It happened to Daniel himself, in fact. And now it was happening to me.

            Granted, the circumstances in my case were a little unorthodox. When I left grad school back it 1987, it wasn’t exactly on the best of terms. Let’s just say I wasn’t quite getting along with a few members of the faculty. But I’d completed enough work by the time I left that (I was told) I earned the degree. Part of me got the impression I was being given the degree as a bribe to keep my mouth shut. I don’t remember receiving any paperwork, but those were pretty foggy days. It’s entirely possible that I received the diploma but, given my temperament at the time, had thrown it away or burned it. Nevertheless it’s been twenty-two years now that I’ve happily assumed I had the degree and that all the records were in order. It had never been called into question before.

            So after learning there was no record of it at the National Student Clearinghouse (that name really gives me the willies), I got on the phone and called my old school, explaining the situation to the woman in the Registrar’s office. When I told her I was talking about 1987, she put me on hold, explaining that she “didn’t even know where they kept those records anymore.”

            That’s another thing to consider. Back then there were no databases. Everything was done with ink and paper and filed away in gray metal filing cabinets, the contents of which are probably now moldering in a cardboard box in a basement somewhere.

            When she got back on the line a few minutes later, she explained that she was sorry, but she couldn’t find any record of my receiving a degree.

            “You do have some record that I was there, though, right?” I asked.


            “Well, I guess that’s a start at least.”

            Unfortunately that’s about all they had. The file reaches a certain point, then stops abruptly, almost as if the rest had been erased.

            I then called my former department, but their records revealed the same thing. Plus all the professors I’d worked with back in the eighties were either retired or dead.

            That’s when I remembered the crow.

            It seems that shortly after I left school, one of the professors who didn’t like me very much received a dead crow in the mail. He didn’t take it very well. And what’s more, he immediately—and quite loudly—assumed that I was responsible.

            For the record, I wasn’t. I have never in my life killed a crow, let alone mailed one to anybody. I may know a few people who have done such things, but that’s irrelevant.

            I thought little of the crow incident after that (given that I was innocent and the professor in question was clearly an insane paranoid). Then ten years ago—about eleven years after I left the university—I was giving a reading in St. Paul, Minnesota, and was approached afterward by a youngster. He explained that he was a student in the same program I’d been in back in the mid-eighties, and asked me point-blank if I was the one who’d sent the crow.

            I had forgotten about the crow, but it was obvious that a few other interested parties hadn’t. Eleven years on, they were still talking about it. And that’s why I’m wondering now if maybe that crow had something to do with the mysterious disappearance of my degree. Punch a few keys and it’s gone forever. Simple as that.

            I don’t want to be as paranoid as that professor, but the fact is he was the vindictive sort. I’d experienced it first hand when I was a student, and so wouldn’t put something like this past him.

            For obvious reasons, I didn’t mention any of this to the woman in the Registrar’s office. More likely than not, it really was just a glitch of some kind. Problem is, how do you undo a twenty-two year-old glitch? Her only suggestion was that I find the actual diploma in question. With that, she said, they might be able to fix their records. Without it, she was clueless. And I was, it seems, jobless.

            The ironic thing is, I’ve read more, learned more, and in general become much better educated outside school then I ever was while in school. School was just a starting point—it just gave me a few clues to follow. I think I’m in much better shape to teach now than I was back then (when I actually was teaching), but if I can’t find a two-decade-old piece of paper in the immediate future, I’m no longer qualified. Figure that one out. And while you’re at it, try to figure out why national databases are supposed to be a good thing.


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