And what could that little thing be? It's been over forty years now, in the summer of 1967, when I got to see this one little thing for myself. And in so many years beyond, I still remember clearly what it was, how it came to be, and what it has meant. What I don't know and never will is what my world would have been like instead. I'd like to tell you about it. Maybe some little thing is about to happen to you, too.
Education has been the compass in my life as long as I can remember. Anyone, without that "little piece of paper" called a diploma, will probably have an exaggerated sense of its importance. And that has included me.
A diploma is a symbol. Too many want to see dollar signs around it, and perhaps the diploma should come with a few printed on it, just to show how much was spent to get it, and what its owner could now expect to earn from its possession. In truth, it is more like a goal line, separating winners from losers. Except the race track is all inside your head, and if anyone else cares, few care very much.
Education as a career is not lucrative and never will be. I think that's good. It means it will draw those with other values, as a calling or an itch that can't be scratched any other way. But in the summer of '67, I had to concentrate really hard for my goal to make sense.
I had been the first in my family to graduate from college. I wanted an advanced degree. For over three years I had somehow crammed classes into summers, evenings and weekends. The college I attended was over sixty miles away. But now I was so close. All I had left was that daunting piece of research and writing called a thesis. For that, there was one problem. As the summer progressed, the problem started looking like a straw. And I was the camel whose back was in jeopardy.
My degree was to be in Spanish literature. I had two lucky breaks. First, I had met a promising but obscure author in 1964, named Julio Ardiles Gray. In Spanish, "Gray" rhymes with "cry." People who have to write theses and even more those who assign them know that the more obscure the better. The idea is to do something original. Choosing a well-known author was like burying old bones in new holes. My college advisor thought Gray was wonderful. If I could find his books.
The second lucky break came on the heels of the first. I knew someone who had also met Gray, and had persuaded him to send her a complete set of his works. I don't want to know how. She agreed to mail them to me. I was all set, right? Just one thing was left. I had no typewriter that made accent marks, and I was writing in Spanish.
My advisor would let me drive the sixty miles to his office and use his portable. One hundred twenty miles a day plus the work. My old car was on its last wheels. When I showed up, my advisor relented and said to take the typewriter home with me He also set the stage. As I loaded the typewriter in the back seat, I realized I needed a ream of special typing paper . The college bookstore was close. It was my only source. And I had just about enough money for a cup of coffee. Paper cost five dollars. Despair.
Then it happened. I climbed in the car, checked behind me in the mirror. And got back out.
Lying flat on the tarmac of the parking lot, in plain sight, was a five-dollar bill. Had I walked toward the bookstore, I would have stepped on it. Soon, a ream of paper, in a blue cardboard box, joined the typewriter and I was on my way home.
Not a lot to tell after that. I wrote my thesis, 93 pages, original and two carbons. Xerox? Too expensive. I finished in the dawn hours of the day it was due. And that August I crossed the stage and got my little piece of paper. I crossed the finish line. I won.
I still have the box, and the memory of how I got it. I still ponder how much difference the other little piece of paper made. The green one. Its importance lay beyond a summer's work. It was more about miracles, and how they come in different sizes. And how they can happen to anyone, including me.