Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Thanks for Noticing

Yesterday I wrote a letter of recommendation for a student. This was a first for me; I am used to being the one asking others to recommend me. I hate asking people to write letters for me, but the process of writing one for someone else turns out to be really lovely work. I love saying nice things about well-deserving people. I love getting to say, “Hey, you! Yes, you! Admissions Office! This student freaking amazing and you would be crazy not to give her everything you’ve got. I am lucky to be her teacher.” I find myself grateful for a chance to say something good about students who may or may not believe all the good they have done and can do in this world, to say not only how bright they are, but what a gift they are to me, their teacher.

I remember a particularly low point in my senior year of high school, when I was feeling the crush of all kinds of pressure to succeed. I had applied to five colleges: two small liberal arts colleges, both of whom were wooing me gleefully, with scholarships that were a drop in the bucket compared to their high price tags, and three state schools. I got in to all but one: the University of Michigan wait-listed me. That was disappointment number one. Then a scholarship competition at Western Michigan University yielded only the smallest scholarship -- the one everyone got just for earning a spot in the competition to begin with. Disappointment number two. And then I didn’t get a writing scholarship I applied for at Hope College. Disappointment number three.

Though I suppose I could back up further. I could talk about how I felt like a failure because I fell short of every goal I set for myself that year. It would sound silly, because it was. These “failures” were things like getting a 29 on the ACT when my personal goal had been a 30, a 1290 on the SAT when my goal was 1300. And so on. These days, I refuse to discuss standardized test scores. I know too well what it is to place more emphasis on those numbers than we should. So whether I did well or badly on the GRE is nobody’s business but the graduate school admissions offices who reviewed my applications.

Back then, though, I felt like a big dumb failure -- always close, but not quite. I was average, normal, good enough. At 18, I longed to stand out for something, anything -- I was so quiet, such a wallflower, never the center of attention, never the “best.” So when various rejections -- or perceived rejections -- rolled in, I caved in on myself. I went into Eeyore mode. (Eeyore is my spirit animal to this day, probably.)

All this time my mom had saved copies of the recommendation letters my high school teachers had written for me. I hadn’t read any of them, though I was technically allowed to. It felt weird to me, somehow. I didn’t know how to take a compliment, much less pages of them proclaiming my merits to complete strangers.

When I hit my lowest my mom got out the folder of letters, brought it to me in the bathroom where I was hiding -- I always went into the bathroom to cry because I didn’t have my own room -- and made me read them.

I’m pretty sure that made me cry more.

I don’t know how many of those nice things people were saying about me I was able to believe at that point in my life, but I know that reading them helped. That knowing someone who had taught me, and had really known me as a person over the years, someone who had seen me grow, learn, try, fail, and improve, would care enough to take the time to say those things -- that meant something to me. It meant a lot more than a number, a grade, a test score, or even a scholarship.

So, writing a letter of recommendation for someone feels pretty damn good. Only 12 years ago I was in this student’s place, pouring all my dreams into college applications and hoping that somewhere in all the essays and numerical evaluations a future would take shape.

And wouldn’t you know, it did. And it still is. For me, and for her.

Tell someone how amazing she is today. Tell her she is so much more than a number, so much more than class averages and statistics and points on a graph. Tell her she’s freaking amazing, and that you’re lucky to know her.