Once there was something called Your Permanent Record. Everybody had one, although no one knew where it was kept, and it somehow followed you wherever you went. It started the day you entered school, and it stayed with you until the day you graduated from high school and, maybe, went to college. Then Your Permanent Record went to college, too.

Everything about you, especially everything bad, was contained in Your Permanent Record. In school, if you did something bad, something truly awful, it was entered into Your Permanent Record and stayed there until the day you died. The severest, worst, most chilling phrase a teacher could utter had to do with Your Permanent Record. The sentence went like this: "This could go into your permanent record." No one was precisely sure what that meant, but it seemed to mean that a misdemeanor committed at an early age, especially in a school hallway, would stay with you for the rest of your life, remembered, recorded, there to be checked by other teachers, college admissions officers, the military services, employers and -- especially -- the civil service.

One bad thing could negate everything good. The man was tethered to the boy, the woman to the girl. Childhood was united with adulthood. What you did in the former could affect how well you did in the latter. It seemed probable that St. Peter checked Your Permanent Record before making his admissions decisions. Kids who often cut class were undoubtedly turned away.

There was not much known about Your Permanent Record except that everyone had one. But this much was known: If Your Permanent Record was bad -- and no one knew what "bad" meant -- you could not get a civil service job or enlist in the Army. This was said with utmost gravity as early as elementary school, even though none of us knew what the civil service was and no one I knew wanted to be in the Army anyway. Still, we were young, and we figured that someday we might want to join one or the other.

By implication, there was also such a thing as an "impermanent record," although no one ever mentioned it. This record presumably contained trivial information that could be expunged or destroyed. It must have contained nothing but good information since the Permanent Record was reserved for serious infractions of the rules or, worse, indications that there was something wrong with your character. For instance, as a member of my elementary school color guard I one day took the American flag, purposely missed the holster for the flagpole, pretended to hit myself in the crotch and doubled up in fake agony. This incident, bearing as it did on patriotism, character and a certain proclivity for the smutty, was entered into my Permanent Record. Alas, it did not keep me out of the Army.

There was something vaguely totalitarian about Your Permanent Record. It smacked of Big Brother, of a school or government that kept tabs on everyone, of a Kafkaesque world in which, somewhere, there was a central repository of records -- a vast warehouse with filing cabinets stacked high like skyscrapers, with eye-shaded clerks bent over rummaging through the dust, flipping alphabetically through files until they came upon yours. Then an employer, a college, the police, would know everything bad about you.

Ironically, Your Permanent Record was thought to exist in an era when the technology for it did not. Nowadays, of course, computers can compile and retain permanent records, and they represent a not insignificant threat to our civil liberties. Kids now have a real reason to fear a Permanent Record, but apparently they do not. My son says the phrase is never used in his school, and, from what I read, young people often embellish or lie about their experience or college record when applying for a job. I would never have done such a thing. I was -- and, in a way, I remain -- convinced that employers have access to Your Permanent Record. Like Santa Claus, they know when you've been good or bad.

An older generation did have reason to believe in a Permanent Record. In the McCarthy period, people were haunted by dossiers that followed them wherever they went. These people really did have a Permanent Record. Stories about these victims of McCarthyism were newspaper staples, and they were supplemented by word of mouth. The mother of a friend of mine had been a member of a leftist college organization, and my friend and I feared that sooner or later she would be punished for it. Her membership was in her Permanent Record. Soon there would be a knock on the door. The atmosphere, the reality of those times, gave credibility to the Permanent Record of which our teachers spoke.

Your Permanent Record disappeared around the same time lockjaw did. Maybe they were somehow connected -- if only in that they were apocrypha trotted out to keep kids in line. Anyway, it's a shame that people no longer believe in Your Permanent Record. It was proof that you were here and that what you did mattered. The discovery that there is no Permanent Record dating all the way back to my color-guard days is sort of like finding out that you don't have an FBI file, that no one really cares what you did then. For all that was chilling and menacing about Your Permanent Record, at least it showed that someone cared. ::