Tuesday, February 5, 2008

To Whom It May Concern:

Each year I write thousands of original letters of recommendations for students applying to universities, for scholarships, and to boost their self-esteem. Actually, I write tens of letters. But most letters I write are done effortlessly and willingly, putting careful detail into each word, knowing that my words can make the difference between Harvard and settling on Yale. But every once in a while, I'm asked to write a recommendation by a student that has not been a shining star in my eyes. In fact, it's only happened once in my career.

This was a student I had in my AP Statistics course (the one year I taught it.) Having taken over the class from a the former Stats teacher who was now enjoying retirement, students enrolled in the course expecting it to have the same rigor-less, playful environment that so many previous students were raving about; they thought they could earn AP credit in an easy course. Unfortunately for them, they didn't expect that I'd be teaching it that year. Needless to say, there were some growing pains for everyone involved.

As is the case with some students when you demand the very best of them, they rise to the challenge. This accounted for about 50% of the students (of that, I'm 86% percent certain that that number lies within 5% of the actual statistic.) The rest of the students were showing their resistance by staging a silent revolution against the new standards, having a "sit-in," if you will, doing very little in terms of quantity or quality throughout the year. Undeterred, I still worked very hard at educating them, in spite of their ignorance. I think I succeeded at pulling another 15% to the industrious side, while another 15% decided to bail the course, only to stage another "sit in" in another class.

This left only the final 20% of students in the left-hand tail of the distribution who never learned what it meant to be in the left-hand tail of of a distribution. And of course, in any group, their is a standout, and this group was no exception. In fact, if you put this group in it's own distribution, this fellow would be as far to the left as you could go (that's negative infinity.) This individual routinely decided to blow bubbles in the middle of my lectures, yes, soap bubbles. I thought after I chewed him out in the hall after the first incident that it wouldn't happen again, but I suppose my sparkling lecture on the Central Limit Theorem was so effervescent, that he felt the need to augment it, once again, with bubbles. I wasn't amused by the special effect.

And so it went throughout the year. He'd resist, I'd persist. He'd insult, I'd consult. He'd distract, I'd instruct. He'd bubble, I'd boil. As the second semester got underway, I was surprised that, despite failing the first semester, he appeared on my roll. He was back to try to salvage his grade? Likely not. My suspicions were confirmed when he "celebrated" the first day of the second semester with . . . . what else??? bubbles. I had to laugh to avoid screaming. A couple of weeks later, the strangest thing happened. As students were asking their teachers for letters of recommendation for colleges and scholarships, he had the audacity, the nerve, the chutzpah to ask ME!! He was undeterred by my wide-eyed stare and astonished look of incredulity. I checked the date, it wasn't April 1st. He was serious.

I encouraged him to ask his former math teacher to write one for him, especially since he actually passed that class. I tried to be as polite as I could without laughing or sounding too satirical. But as fate would have it, when he went next door to ask the former teacher, the door was locked and the teacher had gone home for the day. Taking it as a propitious omen, the student insisted that I write the letter. I mentioned that I would do it, but given our relationship, I would have to be honest, and I might not be the letter he was hoping for. "No problem," he said.

It was the most difficult letter I've ever written. It took me almost three times as long as any other would take. Apparently, it's easy to say great things about someone . . . . when they're true, but it's very difficult to choose words that are vague, without being too incriminating, that hint at both a person's true nature but also their true potential. Rather than just "slamming" the student, I embrace the opportunity to write such a bland letter that implicitly conveyed, rather than explicitly stated, what I thought of the student. I didn't want to hurt him, but I didn't want to hurt the university to which he applying either.

Phrases such as "A student like this does not come along very often," "He sets his own standards," "Outside of class, he is involved in many endeavors," "No student is better qualified for university studies," "please waste no time in accepting this student's application," "I cannot say enough good things about this young man," littered the letter. Apparently, the letter worked, because, although he didn't pass my Statistics class, he DID make it to a local university. Somewhere, right now, in some large lecture hall on a university campus, bubbles are floating through the air.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Some letters of recommendation are much easier to write than others. Tiny bubbles.....

bob s said...

The art of damnation by faint praise is a difficult one to acquire and develop, but a necessary one.