Your Permanent Record

The principal wasn't kidding

The announcement of my high-school reunion made me think of my permanent record, something I hadn't considered in years.

There were only three terrifying concerns when I was attending Shaker High. The first was getting a condom. Not that I needed one. The closest I had come to kissing a girl was in a wet dream from which I awakened way too soon. But all of us guys knew there would come a time and a place when we would want to look deeply and sensually into a girl's eyes as she licked her lips in anticipation, smiled seductively, and waited while we casually opened our wallet to remove a pristine "rubber" to use for who the hell knew what. The only problem, and it was insurmountable (as was the problem of getting a girl interested in even knowing whether I had "protection"), was the fact that a classmate's mother worked the drugstore check-out counter.

The second horror was the deficiency slip. "Young man, you haven't been turning in your homework, you've been writing in class instead of doing your assignments, and as for your test grades . . . I'm mailing your parents a deficiency slip to let them know how you're doing."

My parents both worked, so once, I sneaked out of study hall the day after the teacher told me what horror awaited. I ran home, got the letter, opened it, forged my father's signature, and returned it. I hung my head and told the teacher that my parents were very upset. The teacher, a smug S.O.B., smiled knowingly. He had solved that little problem.

It was the third concern that was meant to strike terror in our hearts - the permanent record.

"You think you're getting away with goofing off around here, young man, but next year you'll be in ninth grade and everything you do will go in your Permanent Record." (Yes, he said it with capital letters.) Then, for four years, every test we took, every success and every failure was placed in our permanent record. We never knew who kept such a record, or where, or who would one day access it.

The Jewish kids in school would talk about the Book of Life, in which God would write down what you had done or failed to do in the previous year. Then, like a loving parent, God would allow each person to ask for forgiveness and try to do better the next year. But the permanent record was something else. Your teachers could grow old and die. Your classmates could have lengthy careers winning Nobel Prizes, serving as medical missionaries eradicating diseases in Third World countries, writing novels that tore at your heart and uplifted your spirit. But if you made so much as one slip in life, as of course we all did, it would be in your permanent record. God shut the Book of Life when you died. The Permanent Record was, well, permanent.

I don't attend high-school reunions, because I have no interest in going back to a time of adolescence when just being alive was an embarrassment. But this year, when the e-mails began coming, I got to thinking back and I wondered what happened to my permanent record. Had anyone ever asked to see it? Could people add to it through life, then have it read at their funerals? Did it really exist?

"We have the permanent records of every student who ever graduated from Shaker High, going back to 1914," said Shaker schools Registrar Alice Kutil in a recent interview. So the warnings were true! "We keep them in the walk-in vault in the basement of the high school."

Note to anyone who might want to assail the vault with powerful magnets, erasing all digital data: The permanent records are on paper and microfiche (though the latter has outlived the HP reader, which is no longer made).

So what's in your permanent record? "Anything you want," said Mrs. Kutil. "We have your high-school records, your test scores, whether or not you graduated and teacher recommendations if you got them. But if you wanted to send us something like one of the books you've written, I'd be happy to add it to the file."

"Could I send a letter explaining some of the things I did that got me in trouble before graduation?" I wondered. You know, like letting the credit bureaus know why the trip to Las Vegas with Bubbles Latour, an exotic dancer from Big Louis' Pole Dance Emporium, Adult Bookstore and Barbecue, was a legitimate reason to exceed my credit-card limit by $7,259.33.

"Of course. If you send it to me, I'll put it in your permanent file."

"Has anybody ever called and asked to see my permanent file?" I asked. "No," she told me, and from the way she answered, I suspect she did not anticipate such requests at any time in the future. Still, it would not be destroyed or have information purged.

"We're working with other schools in the state, trying to learn what we have to keep and what we can get rid of. It looks like we'll have to continue to keep everything.

"This is not to say that the permanent record is not checked, but such a check is more likely to happen if you are looking for a first meaningful job or applying to a college after being out of school for a while.

"The employers don't care about a student's grades," Mrs. Kutil said. (See, Mom? I told you no one cared that I got a D in wood shop!) "They want to know an applicant's attendance record. If you cut school a lot or were chronically late, that may be a reason to not hire you."

The other concern is whether or not you actually graduated. The employers don't care when you finished passing everything. They just want to know you got a diploma. "I periodically have an employer send me a copy of a fake diploma an applicant furnished so I can tell them if it's authentic. They make them on their computer. One was very elaborate, but it didn't look like the ones we hand out, and the names on it had nothing to do with the high school."

And so I learned the truth. The permanent record is real, but apparently not even Homeland Security has gotten around to checking this invaluable resource. I still have reason to be concerned, but less so than before. However, one fact remains rather tantalizing. There were a couple of kids in my class — one of whom is rich, infamous and periodically the subject of ridicule in The New Yorker — whom I still can't stand. Now I know that if I write a letter explaining all the things I disliked about them and still dislike about them, and if I send it to Mrs. Kutil, there is a good chance it will end up in their permanent records.

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