But not for me.
At my desk I begin: "If any one student can be said to have a widespread positive impact on his school, Ethan is the one. But how does he do it? Student council? No. Community service? No. Sports titles? No. He does it through rock and roll. Really loud rock and roll."
Thirty minutes later, I have completed yet another recommendation for a Newport High School senior who needs my best writing to gain admittance to a university he dreams of attending or earn a scholarship to the higher education he and his family can't possibly afford. He faces fierce competition from fellow seniors in the elite and richer Portland area and Willamette Valley schools. I know I have to write my best because of the potential to make a crucial difference in my student's life.
I write essays, articles, sermons, reviews, columns, polemics, blogs, and books, but I consider writing recommendation letters for graduating seniors my most important work.
In the past four and a half years teaching at Newport High School, I have written almost 125 recommendations, usually about 400 words each, and I never rehash previous material nor employ clichés. I never tell a student to "write something up and I'll sign it." I also don't make anything up like a lot of nonfiction writers do these days.
I approach every recommendation as a unique storytelling opportunity where I must get the hook in early to capture the reader's attention. Think how many thousands of these things they must read! Not too long ago, I read back through many of the recommendations and pulled out some of my favorite phrases that I like to think hooked the reader. Later I discovered this writing paid off for these students.
I often marvel when I hear him explain the subtle differences between this edible mushroom and that poisonous one. He organizes outings into the woods on a regular basis and teaches many of his peers the wonders of nature and, by extension, the need to protect it from rapine. He also occasionally brings me chanterelles he's harvested in the woods and cooks them up on a gas stove in the school parking lot.
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Last year, Avery broke new ground in Oregon high school journalism by writing a monthly column called "We the People," which shed light on the many underreported stories surrounding gay and lesbian teenagers. It quite possibly was the first column of its kind in Oregon. Her inaugural piece announced her own sexual orientation and the challenges associated with having such an identity in a small town on the Oregon Coast.
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The verb I associate with Katherine is the word 'probe.' It's one of my favorite verbs. She probes things in the world, both physical and metaphysical. She evinces a raw curiosity in her life and writing. It is so rare to encounter these qualities these days, among youth, among most adults. I rate it almost an endangered psychological species.
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I read his essay right in front of him and it told of his heroic battle against poverty, hunger and his parents' drug addiction; it also told of his conviction that education was his sole means of escaping to a better life. At times I could not believe what I was reading because the life of destitution Dylan lived was utterly alien to my experience as a high school student. It was a brilliantly written, heartfelt piece that avoided any hints of victimization or ideology, and I knew instantly that Dylan was a unique and determined young man who was going to use his intelligence and work ethic to make something of himself. I also sensed he wanted to help others too, which is about the highest compliment I can pay any human being.
Over the years, students I've written recommendations for have gained admittance to Sarah Lawrence, NYU, MIT, PSU, WOU, and study-abroad programs, and have won full-ride scholarships with the Ford Family Foundation or local community colleges. Naturally, they've done the real work to get into the position to succeed. But I like to believe that some original writing from me helped a little bit too. It's the least I can do considering how hard they worked for me.
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Matt Love is the author/editor of 10 books about Oregon. He lives in South Beach and teaches creative writing and journalism at Newport High School. His latest book is Of Walking in Rain.
Books mentioned in this post
Matt Love is the author of Of Walking in Rain