because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Sure, I’ll Write You a Recommendation

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Monsieur Stephenson, circa 1980s

In 11th grade, I needed three stellar recommendations that I could send off with my college applications. I felt confident that I would receive solid letters from two of my former English teachers, but then I was kinda stuck. There was no way I could ask any of my math teachers. I mean, I enjoyed Geometry, but I wasn’t necessarily good at it, and my Algebra teacher had retired.

Finally, I decided to ask my French teacher. I’d been in his class for two years. I was reasonably interested in the material (kinda); I liked him a lot (that should count for something, right?); I did my homework (sometimes); and I tried not to laugh too much. Yes, I decided, Monsieur Stephenson would be the perfect person to write me the outstanding recommendation that I was seeking.

You can imagine how shocked I was when he flat out said no.

“Think about your performance in my class,” he said. “Do you give 100% ? Do you take everything seriously? Do you show me that you want to be here? Do you do anything extra?” He pushed his hair back with the palm of his hand and sat up straight in his chair. “Think about the answers to those questions and then you’ll understand why I can’t write you a letter.”

He did not say he was sorry.

Fast forward 30 years.

Here it is, recommendation letter writing season, the time when former students return to me, sometimes many semesters after I’ve had them as students. Like frantic homing pigeons who have been lost for an awful long time, they ask me to write them all kinds of letters –  to get into four year colleges, to enter the military, to give to potential employers – so I find myself thinking of Monsieur Stephenson a lot.

Mr. Stephenson in the 1980s

When Monsieur refused me that day, he gave me a big dose of reality.

It is not enough to simply show up: A person must do more than make a good impression. Many of my former students think that because they liked me – that because I was kind to them and they passed my class – that they are entitled to strong letters of recommendation, but the best letters of recommendation are not just about “passing the course,” but about work ethic and character, growth and potential.

I am grateful to Monsieur for refusing me, as I see his wisdom in holding up the mirror before me and having me take a good hard look at myself and my choices. I understand that his mediocre letter could have prevented me from getting into the college of my choice.

Students need to think carefully and be direct in asking any potential letter writer if that person can produce a strong letter of recommendation on their behalf.

If a student can’t find a professor or teacher, they may have to get creative and look to coaches, neighbors, religious leaders, perhaps someone who has witnessed their involvement in community service.

I learned more than just French from Monsieur Stephenson: I learned to be selective about whom I agree to write letters of recommendation. They are time consuming endeavors; labors of love.

Having said that, I am happy to write one for you – if you deserve it.

Anybody refuse to write you a letter of recommendation? How’d you take it?