BY WAY OF APOLOGIZING or recanting or clarifying or whatever you may call what I am about to do, I'd like to start by saying that once and only once in my career did I meet someone so despicable that I set out to write the proverbial hatchet job. I stuck to the facts, but I gave this particular woman the benefit of no doubt. She called sometime after the story appeared. She wanted to thank me. She loved the story. So did her friends.

Something had gone wrong. To this day, I don't know what, but I've learned that from time to time I fail to put down on paper exactly what's in my head. People get the wrong impression. Something like that happened when I wrote a column about a woman who had been expelled from medical school. Part of the column dealth with the subject of ugliness. Some people thought I was making light of the problem, mocking ugly people. I wasn't, and I'm sorry the column came across that way.

I knew something was wrong the minute I came into the office. There was a stack of telephone messages waiting for me and reports that many people had called and left no message. Then some colleagues asked me about what I had written and yesterday the letters started to arrive. It appears that I have offended some people and at the risk of doing it again, I'd like to explain myself.

The column concerned a woman who had been expelled from medical school and who claimed in her suit that her expulsion was due, in part, to her looks. She was unattractive and unkempt and that made some people think that she was dirty. At the very last, she argued that it made her unpopular -- the joke of the school, is the way one person put it.

The story struck a chord in me. The legal issue at the moment is whether the school should have notified her of its decision and then held a hearing -- due process, it's called.This is what I wanted to write about because I, too, was expelled from college and I, too, have learned the hard way that colleges think they can mangle your life and explain it all by saying something like "regulations."

And this is the column I was writing when I noticed something in the newspaper clippings. I noticed that it was the woman herself who had brought in witnesses to testify to her looks. It was her people who had told the court she was considered the joke of the school. I don't know why I hadn't noticed that before but when I did, I was startled. This woman had done something I could never do. I'm the one who wants to stay home when I get a pimple on my nose. I'm the one who wants to wear a hat after a butcher of a barber does his work on me. I'm a bit vain --maybe like you. I could never call those witnesses.

After all, the woman was right. Ugly people are handicapped. Lots of people don't like them. One of the women who complained to me about the column then went on to tell me about a friend who can't get a job because she's ugly.That's the sort of thing I was writing about and the sort of thing I consider regrettable. But I have to include myself among those who would rather be with pretty people, attractive people, than ugly people, I say that and I say it not liking it one bit.

This, after all, is the age of equality -- equality between the sexes and the races. The whole premise is that you are worth what you are, not what you appear. I subscribe to that, but I notice, too, the way cute babies get all the attention, the way the homely ones are passed up when the cuddling starts -- the way we start at a very early age letting people know that it is the beautiful who will inherit the earth. There is no defending this attitude, but it exists nonetheless.

So I called the woman who had been expelled because she, in effect, had called me on my own prejudice. She had me dead to rights and I thought she knew it. I thought she had guts and I thought she had conviction and I thought she was maybe the first person I've heard about who said, "Yes, I'm ugly, but I'm able or personable or smart or whatever and that these, folks, are the things that count."

All she wanted after all was to be judged as the person she really is rather than the person she appears to be. It's not asking too much.

This is what I meant to say.