"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Whether tis nobler to write a recommendation

These days I find myself teaching high school seniors, primarily, a literally mixed blessing.  At the moment, we are relieved from obligatory preparation for high-stakes testing, as most of that is over; on the other hand, we shepherd our charges through the minefields of college and scholarship applications.  And with that territory comes the not inconsiderable burden of recommendations.

My colleagues recommend forms.  I was a lawyer for 20 years, and even then I could hardly stand to put my name to any kind of form communication.  It felt like an essential compromise of self.  So, like a proud idiot, I write every recommendation roughly from scratch (admittedly, my openings and closings are a bit of a formula) based on my personal knowledge of the student.  I pretty much ignore their resumes and brag sheets -- after all, the Admissions Office can read that stuff as well or better than I can.  I need to provide something available from no other source -- what the student is like as a student.

The problem is when they are a lousy student.  And not lousy in spite of decent effort.  I mean when they have a lousy attitude, a lousy work ethic and lousy results on paper.  I suppose most other teachers would say I should just steer clear of the whole thing.

But is it fair that our life be determined by the mistakes of our youth?  Who of us would survive that?  Who's to say that the inconsiderate lunkhead in front of me could not be an incredibly productive purpose once they recover from universal handicaps of being young, from their urban backgrounds and their toxic families?  Do I, with the short acquaintance of 40 minutes a day, 5 days a week for a few months of their life, have the right to be gatekeeper to their future?

Many of you are thinking of me as hopelessly wishy-washy as you read this.  I suspect you have a bad memory.  The only other explanation is that you were once insufferably perfect and are now intolerably judgmental.  So I say, "foo!" to you.  I cannot be cavalier about these recommendations.  Too much weighs in the balance.  One young person's life -- that's an immense weight for a relative stranger like me to toss around like Adenoid Hynkel tossing the globe-balloon in The Great Dictator.

Scold me if you will, I err on the side of opportunity, of the second chance and the third, all those chances that I needed to get where I am.

So that said, what the devil do I write in such a recommendation?  I adopted a pretty firm policy when I began to teach not to lie.  Not to my students, not to my supervisors, not to parents and not to other members of the educational system.  (This was a drastic shift from the M.O. of the entertainment business from which I had come.)  So I will not say that Johnny is a wonderful student when he is not.  I certainly can't claim greater intelligence or writing skills than he has, since the college or scholarship organization will have their own data on those matters.

So I devote myself primarily to issues of character.  Which presents its own challenges in the case of a student who has no self-discipline and rarely exhibits consideration to me or his fellow students.  Still, there must be some nugget, some kernel of promise somewhere down there.  That's what I write about, all I can write about.  The rest should be capturable by some sort of metric already on the record.

I must confess to smug satisfaction when I learn that research confirms that character is key; that the best predictors of success are not cognitive achievements, but elements of character -- persistence, consistency, those qualities researcher Angela Duckworth gathers under the term "grit."  There's something I can tell an admissions officer about that might not show up so clearly on a transcript.  And if I lack data, I can legitimately shade what I do know in an optimistic direction.

Because optimism is another element of grit.  And I need it just as much as the students.

So maybe I write some recommendations that are more positive than justified.  But who can be sure if that is so until the student in question has actually failed to live up to my hopeful projection?  Until then, it's all about the journey.  A journey that starts with an open gate.  I'd rather let Joe Schmoe in and watch him flail, then lock Steve Jobs out and let him disappear into the mob.

Sue me.

No comments:

Post a Comment