College Recommendation season is almost over. The college counselors want all the January 1 letters uploaded to the Naviance website before we leave for winter break. Naviance like the adult tooth fairy leaving an end to early-onset male pattern baldness under your pillow. Alongside the neighbor’s password to HBO online. None of the dozen different envelopes and individualized questionnaires, worrying about putting the right form in the right envelope—double checking, steaming open envelopes to make sure you didn’t screw up Johnny Matilda’s optimistic Princeton application, an application so debonairly buoyant that when he first brought you his list of schools it was hard to keep the eyebrows steady as he proudly put his hand, palm down, on the Princeton envelope topping the stack and gushed about the ivy adorning the residence hall walls—not even aware of his own pun. This a young lad for whom coherent sentences generate a struggle. Maybe he’s a math and science genius. Or speaks four languages. In which case, the anguished cry goes up, why not ask them? Maybe he has. Maybe he’s collecting them. More to the point, maybe his great, great grandfather and every relative thereafter attended Princeton. I don’t ask.
That’s one of the unwritten rules. Never mention it: “legacies.” It’s like bringing up Chuck E. Cheese in a room full of old-time clowns. The students immediately assume that you think of them as little more than a genetic, stonewashed dog collar—which may be partially true, but not an impression you want to broadcast too widely.
And never say “no” when asked. Not so much because of bad karma, but because of what it does to your winter-break gift tally. There’s always something to say, some positive spin, even about Johnny Matilda’s younger brother who not only struggled equally ineptly to write a coherent sentence, but spent most of each class surreptitiously playing “Candy Crush Saga” on his ipad while taking the occasional note. Just for verisimilitude’s sake. This a young lad who spoke in emoticons. So, yes, always say “yes.” Even if you think there’s nothing to say, there’s always something to make up. About his ability to concentrate in class—not entirely untrue—about his presence of mind during group work, about one particularly impressive essay on Huck Finn and postbellum America. It’s actually a good idea to cut and paste real sentences from sample Huck Finn essays into a word document so you can throw legitimate quotes into the letter as representations of insightful interpretation and dashing parallel structure. Things like: “Conrad’s convoluted narrative isn’t to display environmental effects but to render the idea that each individual inherently holds a piece of darkness in their conscience. A definition of the ‘darkness’ doesn’t redeem our souls from our sins because, essentially, every one of us is vulnerable to living life as an illusion.” An especial time saver. That of course from an essay on “Heart of Darkness,” but if we substitute Huck Finn, the sentence works just as well—if not better.
As a parent myself, of course, the whole process a source of constant worry. Not so much for Georgia, already at eight so ridiculously tall, and we’ve been working on her volleyball bump for so long that Stanford’s practically on the verge. It’s Hugo I’m more worried about as he’s exhibiting neither athletical tendencies nor academic finesse. And he’s already past fourteen months.
My colleague Alan Barstow has generously agreed to write a recommendation to accompany Hugo’s application to the esteemed nearby pre-school, Little Swans although not having attended the school himself he possesses minimal pull. The “L” word again. The actual letter reads as follows:
December 18, 2013
Dear Madam or Sir,
I have known Hugo since his birth, so I can tell you that his test scores rank him at the top of his cohort. Again and again he has scored above the ninetieth percentile in both height and weight. Most remarkable is his consistently stunning achievement in head circumference: over 100%. One look at Hugo and you know that he teems with big ideas and thoughts.
As a writer Hugo plays with his words. Literally. He often becomes so excited to begin the writing process that he thrusts his pen and notes into his mouth. While some would mistakenly classify the divine mess of ink and pulp that emerges as inarticulate or incomprehensible, in truth these musings authentically conveys the deepest sense of what it means to be a young man today discovering the world around him. One essay that comes to mind is his analysis of Hamlet. On that assignment, which asked Hugo to evaluate which of Prince Hamlet’s flaws is the main contributor to his downfall, Hugo slobbered. Yet, the slobber was profound. Rich and silky. Clear and voluminous.
I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically recommend Hugo to you for all of the above reasons. I’m also good friends with his father. Please contact me if you require any further commendations.
It’s quite a nice letter, and of course I applaud the specific reference to the Hamlet assignment. I do think Alan overdoes the praise of physical attributes just a little. Personally, I also would have omitted the aspect of “knowing the father,” as it whiffs of insider trading. Then there’s the subject verb disagreement, and, to a seasoned pro, the cut and paste lines seem a tad too obvious, but, like I said, that’s how we, the royal “we” of teachers, make this palatable.
To some teachers of course the whole thing an utter badge of honor. The weary shake of the head as deadlines approach, the fingers held up in corridors as we pass each other to show how many left. Letters that is not teachers. Sometimes not enough fingers. Some teachers well into double digits, teachers of juniors, often hitting the 25-30 mark. And secretly loving it (some teachers mortified if their request-rate drops below 20). Like that scene in Lethal Weapon 3 where Rene Russo and Mel Gibson compare battle scars. But 25 letters. That’s a lot. But also a lot of gifts, so a balance beam.
Plus the mandatory extra personal day after magic letter number eight. That in itself a precious gem of a thing. Almost as precious as Johnny Matilda’s insightful comment on Robert Frost’s famous poem about Father Christmas “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to give his reindeer a little break before delivering the rest of his presents to all the little children. So many children, so many presents, apparently, that Frost had to repeat the last line.
That being a perfect way to close his letter, especially when followed by, “I cannot recommend him highly enough. He will bring nothing but prestige and honor to any college lucky enough to welcome him in the fall.” Maybe “matriculate” instead of “welcome,” but you get the idea.