because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

The Day Monsieur Said Non

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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 had enjoyed Geometry, but I wasn’t necessarily good at it; my Algebra teacher had retired two years prior; and I wasn’t on good terms with my homeroom teacher.

Monsieur gives me the finger.

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 25 years, and here it is, recommendation letter writing season.  Like frantic homing pigeons who have been lost for an awful long time my former students are returning to me, asking me to write 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.

However, the best letters of recommendation are not just about “passing the course,” but about work ethic and character, growth and potential.

I am strangely grateful to Monsieur Stephenson for refusing to write me that letter, and I see his wisdom in holding up a mirror before me and having me take that proverbial good hard look at myself and the choices I had made that brought me to that day.

I even 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 cannot 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: as teacher now, myself, I have learned how to be selective about whom I consider writing letters of recommendation; after all, they are time-consuming endeavors, unpaid 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?

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© Renée Schuls-Jacobson 2011. All rights reserved.