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Illustration by Sam Kalda

You’re pretty sure you don’t deserve it.

By Beth Kephart

Cum academyiis antiquus moi sit scientist litterisue humanoidibus exultos titulo iusto condecorara nos igitur auctoritate Curatorum nobis commissa
ob Studie a Professoribus approbata ad gradum
Hic Gradus Praeclarus In Historia Et Sociologia Scientiae Conlatus Est Magna Cum Laude

You’re pretty sure you don’t deserve it. That if you applied today to that very institution, you would be rejected. You should never have been there, either way, for you were a naïf on an urban campus. Let it be known that when your roommate’s friend perched in the open window on the fourth-floor ledge of your room in the Quad and, LSD-minded, threatened to fly straight down to Spruce Street, you did not have a plan, only shouted, No! Don’t do it! That when a roommate was convulsing in the immediate hour, your grand idea was to call her parents, many miles and a few states away. That when a boy you’d met at a party scaled the walls of that same stony building and climbed in through your open window and threw himself upon you in the blanket of the night, you held the trauma close and did not know how and why to speak it. That in the aftermath of all of this, you took to the streets and started walking into neighborhoods where you were not wanted.

You were a university girl, flaunting her tatter.

You see what I mean? You weren’t ready. You didn’t have the requisite skills to dismiss the boy who sat outside your room and followed you, his shag hair hanging, across the brick-and-ivy campus. You didn’t have the language when another boy climbed to the top of his fraternity house and threatened to jump unless you’d date him. You didn’t stop yourself from starving yourself, and you didn’t stand up to the professor who ridiculed your exegesis of the Wordsworth poem “Nutting.” You just never took another English class, which is to say that that was you, basking in the humiliation.

What did you do with your education? Why must you work through your catalog of embarrassments before you see yourself in the vast auditorium perked up with love for Dr. Riasanovsky and his Russian history? Before you remember the you who plunked herself down at the oval in Dr. Kohler’s class and half-raised your hand because you had answers to his questions. Or the you in the sanctuary quiet of the Van Pelt stacks, your inky notecards spread before you, your thesis expanding and expounding.

You fought yourself back to a B in biology, after you were sure that you would fail. You wrote every set of lecture notes twice, into separate notebooks, to improve your understanding. You tore your onionskin from your Selectric typewriter when you could write a better sentence. The shag-haired boy gave up on you, and so you started breathing.

Slip your diploma from the shelf where it lies—a kind of stealth—between the books you never read. Buff the face of the glass that preserves it with a cloth. Bring the pretty Latin close. Be gracious. Take possession. Your Baccalavraeae Artium is because you did not quit. Your magna cum laude is because you learned to appease a fretful mind with knowledge.

Diploma: From the Greek diploma: A letter folded double.

Beth Kephart C’82 is the award-winning author of nearly 40 books, the latest of which is My Life in Paper: Adventures in Ephemera, from which this piece is adapted with the permission of Temple University Press.

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