In 1978 I graduated from college. I thought. What I really did was kind of put a cherry of a fuck-up on top of what had been a very successful few years in college. I suppose some history is necessary, although those who know me know I was not always the serious, nose-to-the-grindstone, responsible person I am today. On certain days. In my youth, I ran the gamut of available forms of rebellion and debauchery. Just the usual–sex, drugs, petty crime, minor trouble with the law. I was in and out of college, where I could not concentrate, and a variety office jobs, where I also could not concentrate. No one would hire me as a waitress, probably because I looked confused even asking for a job. I got some government benefits while I was in school full-time, so I enrolled in college a couple of times. But partying tended to make me forget I was a student and I would wander away, flunking everything and not caring.
Sometime around 1973, I realized the choice was a quick death or a move to adulthood. I decided the best thing was to try school one more time, hopefully becoming qualified for something, since I was pretty unemployable in any capacity. Being clue- and resource-free, still having trouble concentrating and also having a handy connection, I used street drugs to help me focus, similar to the ones I get by prescription today. Self-medicating is not the story for today, but it's important to bracket the wholesome, successful college years with the spectacular strayings from the path that preceded and followed it. That first year back in junior college, I shot meth on a daily basis and got straight A's. My performance was impressive and I qualified for academic amnesty, where the school would line through your F’s and not count them toward your grade point average.
After a transitional period of drug-fueled academic re-entry, realizing that shooting drugs was not something that could go on for the rest of my life and that I looked pretty good on my transcripts, I quit meth and applied to Berkeley. Both things worked. I spent one more summer session at City College just to get American History out of the way, paid the fee to the office that sends your transcripts to your next institution, and said a fond good-by to City.
I spent two years plus two quarters at Berkeley, though I had the units to graduate with a degree in linguistics after two years. There were fascinating classes, and I indulged myself taking them for a little while longer. I can't think of a time when I felt I fit in more than I did at Berkeley, culturally, intellectually, even sexually (lots of lovers, including a professor), while earning excellent grades. But finally it was time to go. Since it was not June but March (the end of the second quarter) when I finished taking classes, and graduations leave me cold, I never planned to attend the ceremony. I filed my request for a degree, carefully filling out the required form. I have to concentrate very hard when I do forms or I miss stuff. But I did that one right and figured the degree was on its way.
Then I moved back to Mom’s house. Mom’s was a happening place. My boyfriend lived there during the time I lived in Berkeley, and my sister and her boyfriend lived here, until she moved out. We were all friends, Mom was a sport, and we had a pretty good time together. But one night–I’m always the last one up, wherever I am–I ran out of cigarettes and I was on my own. So I decided to walk to the neighborhood bar, where I could buy a pack from the bartender. Once I got there, I decided, in light of my new adulthood, being a college graduate and all, that I would order a beer.
Naturally, I got picked up by a nice young man, who was really just someone to talk to. I was at loose ends again for the first time in years, not a good place for me, though I didn’t know it. The pleasant young man and I bought a six-pack when the bar closed (because the gods conspired to give that bar, of all the bars in San Francisco, an off-sale license) and took it to the beach, where we sat on rocks watching the darkened breakers and having a laid-back conversation. I was not raped, nor did I even have to fend off a pass. I have rather good instincts for people.
Nevertheless, things got exciting really fast. All that was left of the evening was to drive me home and say good night. He got confused with my directions and blew past a stop sign. No one else out there at that hour of the night but a cop, who turned on his siren. I never did understand what made the young man panic, made him run when the cop tried to pull him over on the ride to my place. I suspect he thought I was under the drinking age, in spite of meeting me in a bar, because I looked that young. Really, it made no sense. The slow, quiet evening of watching waves and drinking beer turned into something fast and dangerous, a high-speed police chase through the streets of San Francisco. It ended with a horrendous crash, and I went to the hospital with multiple skull fractures and near total amnesia for what I had been doing the last few years. I got to luxuriate in the accomplishment of the bachelor’s degree for four days before I forgot all about it.
But that’s not what this story is about, either. I eventually did remember that I had a degree (I thought), and some time after that I even remembered what the hell linguistics was. After months of recuperation, I got a working class job in the neighborhood, the accident interrupting plans for graduate school. After that job and an attempt to start a landscaping business in Arizona with my boyfriend, I started working in offices again. This time was different. I had learned some workarounds for my lack of focus. I learned to be systematic and organized. I stopped getting fired after a few weeks. I found a fairly fun low-end job in the creative department of an advertising firm, a company that insisted even the mailroom boy have a degree. They promoted from within, so a mailroom clerk was a potential account exec. That was my first job that required a degree.
I had lots of interesting things to do outside of work. I volunteered with the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, working at their civil law clinic. I volunteered at the Y as an aerobics instructor. I worked at the phones at San Francisco Sex Information. My job at the advertising company was easy, but I had no ambition to move up the ladder and you can only stamp invoices for so long before you get restless.
Bored with office jobs, I decided it was time to think of something else to do. I figured I had to go back to school, and I considered the pros and cons of various careers. I had never wanted to be a teacher, but one thing about that job stood out–the summer vacation. No one but a teacher got three months off a year with pay. It was paltry pay, but I didn’t need much. So, yeah, I would go to teacher school.
Why I thought I could teach in our dangerous and disorderly public schools, I no longer remember. Public schools were not the same as when I was a kid. They were often war zones. The kids, many of them, were large, scary, violent, armed, on edge, sometimes high and ready to explode. In another surprise, I turned out to be the astonishingly adept at working in that environment, helping kids and actually teaching stuff. My early experience as a juvenile delinquent helped quite a bit. I loved teaching. Kids loved me. I was kind of a miracle, to myself and to the administrations of the schools where I worked.
But to get into teaching, I first needed a credential. I found that the best place to go was to San Francisco State University, originally a teaching college. I applied, giving my academic background as City College and Berkeley, with a degree in linguistics. I was accepted and spent a year learning curriculum development and doing student teaching. I applied to the State of California for my teaching credential, and they issued one to me.
Then I applied for a job to the San Francisco Unified School District and was hired. First, I had to spend a semester subbing, but I got lucky and landed a tenure track position. The story of why I gave that up is told elsewhere, but the important thing is, I got the job. I taught high school English at a magnet school for a year, before giving up the job to go teach in Japan. When I returned from Japan, I went back to working for the school district as a sub. It was a cut-back period, no permanent jobs were available, my mom was sick and I needed to make more money than I could get from subbing. I had to supplement subbing with office temping. I contemplated leaving teaching.
A friend offered a chance to do some clerical work at the tech company where she ran the technical publications department. I had no computer background and had really just learned how to use a PC, but I was a quick study. I worked there for a year as a contractor, first doing clerical work and eventually technical writing. At the end of the year, the company offered me a permanent job. I was doing the job, of course, but to change my status to permanent, I had to go through the hiring process just like any job applicant, including submitting a resume. That’s what this story is about.
A few days after I gave him my resume, the boss I had been working for that last year called me into his office. He looked miserable. I sensed that something had gone wrong with the job offer. It had, but in a completely unexpected way. The company had hired a firm that did background checks, and they had found that I did not have a degree from Berkeley. I could see how much my boss hated to confront me about lying on my resume. I don’t know how people react in those situations where they get busted for exaggerating credentials. I didn’t react that way. I had not lied. I was simply mystified.
I asked him for more information. All he knew was that Berkeley denied issuing me a diploma. I assured him that I did indeed have a degree, that it must be an error, and I would investigate it myself. He looked cautiously relieved, because he liked me and he really didn’t want to fire me.
I went to Berkeley and found out what happened while I was in the depths of amnesia and faltering mental function. I had in fact correctly submitted my request for a degree, but there was a missing graduation requirement. There was no record of my ever having taken American History, which California required for a bachelor’s degree. I insisted it was on my transfer credits from City College. No, I was told, it wasn’t. Berkeley had never received the summer session transcript.
So I visited the City College transcript office. They had the transcript. They had simply never sent it, the reason no longer discernible fifteen years later. I repeated what I had done in 1975, paid my fee and requested that my transcript be sent to Berkeley. The lady in charge of the office, hearing the situation, contacted her opposite number at Berkeley and faxed my transcript right over.
I returned to Berkeley to the Administration office, where a young man, with great ceremony, presented my actual diploma to me, affixing a seal indicating that I had graduated with honors. I took my diploma back to my boss, who xeroxed it and sent it to the background checkers, who in turn confirmed it. I got the job and stayed many years.
Only after I was hired, when we were all done having a laugh, did it suddenly occur to me that I had been accepted into a graduate teaching program at San Francisco State University, had been issued a teaching credential by the state of California, and had worked for years for the San Francisco Unified School District, without having a degree on record. I had to prove that I was a citizen to be hired by the schools, but they never checked with Berkeley to see if I had a degree as I claimed.
Looking back, I wonder if I could have gotten away with claiming a master’s degree. Better pay scale for public school teachers.