Paper Chase

Looking up his high school Permanent Record Card leaves our author curiously grateful for his failings

School was where I went to fall short of my potential. I stared out the classroom window or at the carvings on my wooden desk or into the middle distance where, faintly, I could see recess. These reveries invariably ended with the hard sound of a teacher’s voice reminding me not only of my failures of the moment but, worse still, that they would haunt me for the rest of my life because she was writing them down on my Permanent Record Card.

I had never seen my Permanent Record Card. But like other children whose hands were never raised, or who could not keep their hands to themselves, I knew all about it. Every poor grade, random outburst, sullen look, failed test—everything, it seemed, that children ever did in school—was inscribed on their Permanent Record Cards, in ink, indelibly, as lasting as an ill-advised tattoo.

Then I grew up and discovered that no employer was going to tell me, “Human Resources just got your Permanent Record Card. Clear out your desk.” But the memory of its perpetual threat still troubled me. I wondered: Were Permanent Record Cards really permanent?

Fellow underachievers, here is the bad news: they are.

Not long ago, a retired New York City schoolteacher told me that the cards were stored at a student’s last school. Did this mean, I asked, that my card was still sitting in Midwood High School on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, from which I had somehow graduated in 1970? She assured me that it was.

And so, like a gaping driver who cannot help but look at an accident, I wrote to Midwood, asking to see my Permanent Record Card. Make an appointment, said the clerk.

From the outside, Midwood looked the same. But now there was a security guard who handed me a visitor’s pass and warned me against carrying firearms into the building. In Room 131, the clerk, Marie Nigro, explained my card had been kept with those of my generation in a file room that was once a lavatory. She pointed me to a seat and presented me with the document that had so troubled me for so long.

It was a beige folder, filled with numbers and scribbled last names. It made me dizzy. There was the 85 in English from aging Miss Rosman who wore white go-go boots. And the 75 in science from Mr. Gleichenhaus, who stared out the window to make sure his car was still there. And the 65 in French from loony Mrs. Solomon, who wore her dresses backward. The spaces reserved for “Personality Rating”—courtesy, self-control, responsibility—were blank. Had I made no impression? Yet, there I was: a member of the orchestra and the school paper who had somehow failed typing.

Curiosity gave way to regret. Surely I could have studied harder, achieved more, been more at 17. Then it occurred to me: my adolescent shortcomings were a gift. The middling career chronicled by my Permanent Record Card was an enduring spur—I had left that place and would never go back again.

I returned the folder to Marie Nigro, who walked down the hallway and put it back with the others. And then she turned off the light and shut the door behind her. 

Despite his Permanent Record Card, Michael Shapiro became an author and journalism professor at Columbia University. —Ed.

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