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One Friday afternoon I sat in my office, exhausted. As the primary counselor on call that day, I had worked with so many students my head was swimming. It was late in the day. The clock ticked hopefully from 4:30 toward 5:00. Even though rush hour would be no picnic, at least I could go home and close my eyes.

Then the phone rang. "You got a student," said the front desk. I straightened my back and went out to the lobby. It was surprisingly quiet, but for the one customer who had prompted the call. I gave him a smile and took the slip from the receptionist. "Medical student," she said. Her tone rang a low bell of warning.

"Hi, Mike," I said brightly, looking at the scrawl. Shaking hands with him was like sticking my hand into a MLB pitcher's glove. "Come on back." He tried not to outpace me as I led the way down the dim cabinet-lined hall. I introduced myself as we walked and, when we got into my office, invited him to have a seat at the side of the desk.

"I see you've written 'student loan' here," I said. "Can you say more?"

He nodded glumly. "The bank says they mailed the check over a month ago," he replied. "I've called every week but it still isn't here."

He proceeded to tell me how his landlord was looking the other way on the rent past due, at least for now. And a friend of his who owned a grocery store was letting him run a tab. Mike had been shopping after hours at the store so he could eat.

Obviously this was an appalling situation. I asked a few questions about dates, the name of the bank, and called up his file on the dumb terminal. According to Oscar, everything was in order, or should be.

"Mike, I'm going to check a few things," I told him. "If you'll please wait here for a few minutes, I'll be right back." He nodded again, still looking unhappy. He didn't look hopeful that I would have any effectiveness at all.

Across the hall I studied the student loan check log. The undergrad told me she had already looked. "I believe you, Karlene," I said. "I just want to be thorough." Back for several pages, three months in time, I scanned the log for any mention of this particular student. The bank was listed more than once, so I knew they were mailing as they said, and we had been receiving checks from them. Didn't look like the problem was there.

I backtracked, into the grody hallway, and searched out the student's file. Application, federal paperwork, ok. Taxes, parents' taxes, fine. And then -- stuffed in between the 8 __ x 11 papers -- there was the check.

I just about barfed. It would have been less disgusting to find a dead rat in there. My eyes glazed over a bit as I read "pay to the order of ... the sum of twenty thousand dollars and 00/cents." My head tipped back and I squinched my eyes shut. Oh, this place, this insanely incompetent place! Here it comes, I thought; he's going to kill me.

I took a deep breath and stepped into the doorway of my office. The blond giant looked up. "Mike," I hesitated, "ah, let me start by saying I'm really sorry." He didn't interrupt, just stared.

"You see," I continued in a strangled voice, "what's supposed to happen is that, when we receive bank checks, the student worker logs them in. Then they're delivered to the bursar's office, which has the authority to dispense the funds to the students."

"And?" he asked. My stomach clenched up. I knew full well that the bursar's office had closed ten minutes ago. Wouldn't this guy just love another weekend scraping by, knowing a $20K check was locked up a few blocks away.

"The check is in the file," I said quietly. "It looks like a student worker made a mistake and just filed it." It has probably been sitting there for several weeks, I didn't say out loud.

"Well can I have it?" he said. Again I grimaced. "I don't know," I admitted. "I'll ask my bosses."

Scott and the Ice Queen were enjoying late-Friday chit-chat.

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