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Letters of Recommendation (I Wish I Could Actually Write)

I’ve taught mostly juniors and seniors for the past 12 years, so certain times of year you’re guaranteed to find me spending the weekend writing letters of recommendation for college applications. It goes with the job.

While I’m generally averse to extra weekend paperwork (especially from the procrastinating kid that asks a day before the deadline), I secretly like penning these rites of passage. Perhaps I’ve been in teaching too long, but for many kids, it’s the first time they’ve had to deliberately ask for direct feedback from an adult.

Depending on the school, there are boxes you check or paragraphs you may write about how well you know this kid and what kind of person they are. They may not actually read the responses themselves, but these papers are proverbial mirrors that reflect the impression a student has given a person that knows them well. And I know you kid-really, really well.

You’ve been in my class for a year or two. We interact for several hours each day. I don’t know all about your personal life (you definitely have no clue about mine), but we have a relationship that will be surprisingly similar to the ones you will have as a grown-up with most of the people you meet. People you work with, your future neighbors, parents of your children’s friends- these are all relationships between people that have no obligation to love you, but for whom you hope to have mutual respect and feelings of goodwill as well as the ability to contribute in a meaningful way. My classroom is a place to practice that, right along with your academic skills. How have you actually been doing?


Dear Sir or Madam:

Alexis does poorly on quizzes and tests, because she is incredibly self-critical and second-guesses most of her answers. I’m not positive where she gets this from, but have met her mother twice and am pretty sure it’s going to take a few good years of therapy to address. I want you to understand that the C she earned in my Biology class does not reflect her willingness to always work with a student on the autism spectrum, whom most just ignore. Alexis is the only student I’ve ever seen him talk to without being prompted. She doesn’t know this, but that’s on his IEP as one of the few signs of progress this year.

Sincerely,

Ms. Ridge


Dear Sir or Madam:

Korban has an A in my class because every time he earned a B on anything, his father spoke with my administrator. She was a theater major before becoming a principal, which makes her comfortable changing his grade in Physics.

Sincerely,

Ms. Ridge


Dear Sir or Madam:

Zoe has no interest in going to college. She is a dancer and is filling out this application so that she can continue to dance. She will go to your classes and graduate with a decent GPA, but it is very important that we get out of her way and just let her do what she does best.

Sincerely,

Ms. Ridge


Dear Sir or Madam:

I have no idea what kind of home Justin returns to after school, but I know that it takes a lot of effort for him to get here each day. He takes two different city buses to get to my class in the morning and one of them runs only every 40 minutes. So that he isn’t counted tardy, he takes the earlier one and I sometimes find him sound asleep sitting up against the wall by my door when he makes it in before I do. Sometimes the bus is late, and I have to mark him tardy just like the kid who pulls up 15 minutes later in an Audi with a $4 cup of coffee. I wish I didn’t.

Sincerely,

Ms. Ridge


Dear Student:

I am happy to spend my Saturday checking boxes about your motivation and commitment to academic excellence, as long as you’ll spend your time at college differently than you have your time with me in high school. You’ve done well in my classes to get into a good college, and you’ll do well in college to get into a good job. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t be writing this letter for you. What will all this “get you into,” however? Please take some time to figure out what makes you unique in a way that these boxes can’t contain, and how that can contribute to our world. Figure out what you’re “into.” Figure out why we should care.

Major in that.

Heather Ridge (Author)