Among the minors on the move in my neighborhood, word has been spreading that I'm an okay recommender. For college. For graduate school. For law school. And this year, in what is a happy first, for kindergarten.
This being the end of the letters-of-recommendation season, I believe I'm one of the league leaders in the production of letters to admissions offices. I sent off my eighth last week--to the University of Wisconsin Law School on behalf of an American University graduate who came here wanting to be a teacher. But now, after four years in the hemisphere's most lawyer-layered city, her head has been turned.
I write my letters on the assumption that admissions staffs are as unmoved by the puffery in these letters as book reviewers are by blurbs on dust jackets. I assume, too, that other recommenders will be writing on and on about the applicant's academic brilliance, high moral quality and straight teeth.
So it's brevity first, three paragraphs at most. That alone must lift the admissions board into a kindly mood. Then I play to the Long Shot Quota, the slots reserved for the unselect who have too many C's and too few extracurricular brightnesses on their records but who have one flickering sparkle of mind or soul that hints of potential excellence.
The long shots can be the surest shots. So many boards are burdened with must acceptances--the well-connected children of corporate givers, children of tenured professors, the seven-foot basketball players--that the admissions tedium surely is broken when a candidate of no connections turns up.
Deciding the fate of these odds-buckers may be the sole merriment of the day. Frank Brownlow of the English department at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Mass., writes in the spring bulletin of the Portsmouth (R.I.) Abbey School that these days the keepers of the academic gate are a down group. "To begin with," he writes, "secondary school education is so poor and standards are so low that admissions boards find it all but impossible, once they have weeded out the few applicants at the extreme top and bottom of the list, to make any significant academic distinctions at all. For awhile they trusted the 'scores.' But 'scores' tell little about the candidate's actual knowledge, and as the quality of secondary education worsens even scores become unreliable guides to a student's promise."
This increases the pressure on us recommenders. My toughest letter this year was for a 5-year-old who lives a few streets away. His parents had their eyes on a private kindergarten that cost two times the college tuition I once slaved summers to help pay. I told the admissions board that although my acquaintance with the candidate went back only as far as 1977 and it was only recently that I had had the chance to discuss his philosophy with him, I did recall one exceptional quality. On the many occasions I took him and his friends to the ice cream shop he seemed to enjoy singing in the car the most. I can see him at Yale as a lead tenor for The Whiffenpoofs.
With the professor from Mount Holyoke saying that education is worsening by the minute, the other pressure on us recommenders is that we are no more than oilers for the treadmill. In Carol Tinzler's recent book, "Your Adolescent: An Owner's Manual," little Kimberly asks her parents: "If they tell you in nursery school that you have to work hard so that you'll do well in kindergarten, and if they tell you in kindergarten that you have to work hard so you'll do well in high school, and if they tell you in high school that you'll have to work hard so you'll get into a good college, and assuming that they tell you in college that you have to work hard so you'll get into a good graduate school, what do they tell you in graduate school that you have to work hard for?" Kimberly's parents answered: "To get a good job so you can make enough money to send your children to a good nursery school."
For the treadmill bunch, my policy is not to write letters to admissions boards. Instead, I write to the kids: Take a year or two off, you'll learn more out of school.