IN JAN. 22, the Grim Riffer struck at the Department of Education. We were promised word in the morning, but the suspense stretched out all day. Part of a sadistic plan, we assured one another.

By noon, fright was palpable in the corridors. The nonveterans, the part-time employes who were abruptly changed by fiat to full-time status for management convenience, and the newer employes, had seen the handwriting on the wall. Most of us wanted something to respond to, weary of rumors that had debilitated morale for months, causing otherwise generous, mature adults to bicker and backbite, as if they were fighting for space on a liferaft.

Worse still, the focus of office activities had shifted from making the program work for needy children to an obsession with personal survival in a shrinking bureaucracy.

"The department is a training ground for personnel experts," I told my friends. "I wish we could get on with our mission."

At last the SWAT team was in place -- a personnel emissary and our division's administrative assistant, fulfilling to the last her role of protecting the boss from tedium and unpleasantness.

It was rather like waiting in a crowd for an oral exam except there were no passing grades. Clearly, this group of well educated, middle-class persons felt terror about the economy. The shattering assumption is that there are no jobs out there, and dismissal could mean the end of a career, the loss of a home, no hope for their children.

I should be the most pessimistic. After all, I'm that vulnerable social unit, a female- headed household. We star in all the poverty statistics, and not by accident. Typically, the RIF hits women hardest, especially if employers regard being over 40 as a sin. "The conservatives want us to get into something traditional," I joked, "but I hear there's age discrimination in the oldest profession, too."

I walked around trying to stir up a little humor, but even the clusters of people seemed isolated by fear and private visions. As the tribunal handed down its judgments, the whispered verdicts began to circulate. A short-timer with a doctorate got the door. The reaction of her colleagues was a clue to dissolving solidarity: "Your husband's wealthy, you don't need to work."

I tried to distract my thoughts by reading. My supervisor, ashen-faced as if he were personally responsible, appeared with my summons. What could I say to comfort him?

Eight of our small group were fingered and lined the anteroom couch like very awkward guests. The secretary was called first; she caught a glancing blow, one grade down and a new assignment. Then we all cheered for the former teacher who came out trembling with relief with her grade intact and a transfer. Two fellows were separated and we murmured "What happened?" and "I'm sorry" as they walked out, stricken. One of them, Bob, used to have his life as prudently planned as his impeccable work space.

Two more colleagues were reduced from executives to clerk-typists. I wondered how Joe's ulcers would react, and felt the irony in Beth's rueful laughter. You have to savor the absurdity of paying a former principal, with a doctorate, such a high salary to Xerox papers and file carbon copies, all in the name of economy.

They called me last. Having 16 years of government service, I wasn't likely to be dismissed. Any other action would not affect my salary for two years. I was braced for a tolerable setback in grade, but I didn't expect to lose my professional status. The demotion proposed -- from writer to secretary -- would put my skills conveniently in the service of someone else's career. But someone else won't buy me a home or raise and educate my child.

"They gave me an offer I couldn't accept," I acknowledged to my daughter. "Of course I'm scared but that's irrelevant."

At home on the weekend, there were calls ... calls ... calls. Being jobless is a little like being bereaved. I heard from family and friends and even several colleagues who wanted to compare notes or to assuage an irrational feeling of guilt at being spared.

No amount of sober reflection changed the options. On Monday morning I put my decision on paper.

Little did I expect the reaction that followed. When word spread that I had refused employment in an inappropriate and prejudicial job, I was assailed by friends and strangers whose panic and pessimism were awesome to behold.

They grew vehement in urging me to keep my salary at all costs, and I mean all -- my future, my human dignity, my integrity. Some said I'd forfeit severance pay, and others predicted I'd be separated, penniless, by an adverse action.

Shaken, I said without conviction, "I will get severance pay, and there will be no knock on my door at midnight, either."

Although one can argue that the hallmark of a decent society is the opportunity to work, no one personally owes me a living and no employer has made me a lifetime commitment.

Advised to "think of it as collecting a paycheck," or to begin a career of "sick leave," I can't forget that jobs exist to accomplish a task. For months, my functions had been disappearing as a new mood and a new direction pevaded the department. It was both fun and useful to publicize ways in which schools use federal funds to improve the educational opportunities of needy children. How would such tasks fare in the new philosophy?

Some displaced workers are busily filing grievances, denouncing favoritism and computing service dates, but why fight to preserve an empty job? I am not up to the ideological flipflops we read about daily in safety, environment, health, civil rights and economic justice. Only a perfectly reversible civil servant comfortably weathers every political season.

My department, bravely indifferent to my family's welfare, nonetheless has made the best decision for me. I accept the action as logical and I only ask that others refrain from the temptation to blame the victim. I have to deal with immediate realities, and then get on with my future.