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GUEST COLUMNIST: Six months out, still confused

(12/12/96 10:00am)

K EENE, N.H. -- Pause for a moment inside the bright chaos of education -- that mad, Herculean world of slippery knowledge crammed into long sleepless nights and coffee-glazed mornings. Step outside the realm of intangible theory, philosophical postulation, neo-classical art, abnormal psychology and international finance, cultural anthropology, literary postmodernism and biochemical engineering. Come, catch your breath, just for a moment. A mere six months separates me from all that, which places me in danger of appearing to know something you don't. Don't be fooled, though -- I know nothing other than how much I don't know. Still, bear with me, if for no other reason than because I am surviving beyond the walls of higher education. And because I have no desire to give any advice at all. The other day, I received a wide, flat package from the Office of the Secretary at the University of Pennsylvania. It was wrapped in stiff brown cardboard, folded securely at the corners and reinforced at the top and bottom. The front and back had been stamped several times with large, important blue letters commanding HANDLE WITH CARE. Gingerly, I sliced open the top edge of the parcel. Out slipped another flat cardboard wrapping, white and thin. I unfolded this inner package and pulled out a narrow pile of papers. One by one, I lifted each page, until I came upon a flimsy sheet of tissue paper. Just then, I sneezed. The tissue exploded sideways from the force of my breath and floated softly to the floor, wafting from side to side as it fluttered and fell like so many colorful leaves in September. I followed its oscillating descent, mezmerized, until it landed. And looking up, I caught a sudden glimpse of red and blue, of the words UNIVERSITAS PENSYLVANIENSES stamped ceremoniously under that famous coat of arms. I bent forward, peering closer -- and frowned. OMNIBVS HAS LITTERAS LECTVRIS SALVTEM DICIT. What? I rubbed my eyes and looked again, trying to draw meaning from the mysterious declaration. Salvtem dicit? Oh. Latin. How academic. How distinguished. How? indecipherable. Luckily, a translation had been included. "Greetings to all those who may read these letters," it said. (All those who may read these letters? Apparently this excluded all those unable to read Latin. That would be me.) I read on anyway. "Whereas it is the ancient custom of academics to honor with a proper title those who are distinguished in sciences or arts, therefore by the authority of the Trustees committed to us, following approval of her studies by the Faculty, we have admitted SONJA STUMACHER to the degree of Bachelor of Arts." Right beneath my nose, resting on the counter in my kitchen all the way up here on top of this mountain in the woods of New Hampshire, rested a diploma from the University of Pennsylvania. With my name on it. Spelled correctly. I stared again at the bold proclammation. It hadn't been a dream after all. Those four years in Philadelphia had been real, as real as the last-minute squeal of brakes at 34th and Walnut. As real as this very newspaper. I collected the diploma and placed it carefully back inside its sheath of cardboard armor. Then I glimpsed something beneath the parcel, a second and much smaller piece of mail, waiting unopened. My name peeked out from the window on the front, and the return address read "Student Loan Servicing Center." I swallowed hard. Oh no no, please not yet. I tore open the top and there it was, in spite of the silent plea: My first-ever student loan repayment bill. The price tag. Lurking stealthily beneath all that impressive Latin. Just a sweet reminder of how much I would pay for that BACCALAVREAE ARTIVM. I stood there for a few minutes, in the kitchen. Each hand held its prize -- in one a diploma, in the other a bill. They were like two sides of a flipped coin, except that no matter what end landed face-up, I had to bear the weight of both. A blind balancing act of heads and tails wrapped into one, educated, penniless human being. As I write, snow has begun to fall again outside. They say it's going to be a cold winter up here. I'll be around for another month of it, at least. Then it will be time to leap again into another world. Another place even further beyond the walls of higher education -- beyond the very limits of this country. But for now, it's time for me to head back up the road, back to the kitchen where a flat cardboard parcel waits on the counter next to a smaller envelope -- before the snow gets too deep. I'll let you get back to the swirl of West Philadelphia, to the bustle of Locust Walk and the flood of intangibles at Penn. Be on your way, but remember to look up every now and then.