Who is Watching? Everyone

I think of you high school seniors, all you once and future college applicants! You have long since endured the Make Way for Ducklings exercise that is the campus college tour, led by cheery chattering student guides. You have worked on, or are even now working on, those fearsome college essays. What can I DO? you must wonder. Write about overcoming adversity? Speak of an inspiring figure in my life? Or should I do an ‘I Used to Think But Now I See’ piece to show how I have changed? Could be a good way to spin that D I got in Tenth Grade History, come to think of it.

I picture you with such thoughts as you sit there, agonizing! I feel for you, walking through these fires! 

But now I must remind you of another whole section of your college application, largely invisible to you:

I speak of the college recommendation, written by two or three adults who have worked in a supervisory capacity over you.

I began writing college recommendations as a young teacher, when Richard Nixon was still shaking his angry jowls at a recalcitrant nation and I’m writing them still, as I find myself once again working with high school students – which is why I can say this with some certainty: Writing the letter of recommendation can be an easy, even pleasurable task for your ‘recommenders’ to take on, if, and perhaps only if, you have let your true self be known by them. Why? Because a recommendation shouldn’t be a list of glowing adjectives but rather a series of telling glimpses into the applicant’s true self. Let me give an example.

I recently spent an hour at a church rummage sale with a high school sophomore who is under my ‘care’. Though two long years will pass before I’ll be writing a letter for him, I note everything he says, even as I do with the other six young people I currently help supervise.

At this rummage sale, for a mere $5, you could take home whatever you could fit in the standard grocer’s brown paper bag.

I watched as this boy happily chose items not ynlu for himself but also for his brothers back home. Gym shorts, cool T-shirts, hoodies: all these went into his bag.

Then we climbed the stairs to the book-sale room where you could fill a bag for a mere $3.

Almost immediately, he spotted a gorgeously illustrated book called Egyptology.

“Oh no,!” he exclaimed. “There’s  a whole series that this book is part of and THIS is the only one I could never find!”

He had looked and looked for it, he said, and, finally despairing, ended up giving the whole collection away.

“And now you can have it,” I said.

“And now I can have it,” he repeated, looking down almost reverently at the volume as he placed it in his bag.

“Maybe there’s a message for me here,” he added.

“What would the message be, I wonder?”

“If you want something enough, you will find it? “ he tried. “If you love a thing, it will come to you? I don’t know, really…”

He didn’t know. Sometimes a person can’t know a thing like that right away. But I knew something I did not know before. I knew that I had just had a glimpse into his young soul. And don’t think I won’t remember his letting me have that glimpse.

So my real message to you, you high school seniors, both for now and for later?

Let yourselves be known. Open yourselves and speak your truth. We are all watching one another, and we all gain strength from what we see.

IMG_2410and here, right on Amazon is another book in the set, his for the asking and $15 plus shipping 


Pity the Poor Readers

Within a month or so a great sigh of relief will go up from all the high school seniors who have applied early to college. For some kids that sigh went up yesterday.

These kids will feel wonderfully ‘done,’ having filled out every line on every application, in many cases using the electronic Common App that has made life so much easier in that it allows students to enter only once the information that is then disseminated to all the schools to which they seek admission.

Likely this had been the first time in their lives that they have struggled to give an account of themselves in the dread 500-word essay that most schools require.

As both an old teacher and someone engaged in the writing game over many years, I have been asked to look at many such essays, so I know what effort is involved for the poor kids who have to rummage through a whole mental attic for the memory of that experience, or person, or core belief that has made the difference for them.

I feel for them.

I feel too for the parents who, if they have told their seniors once have told them a thousand times to just sit down and WRITE the darn thing.

And mostly I feel for the people in the nation’s college Admissions Offices, who, after reading these essays all day long at work must then take their hunched shoulders and their strained eyes home and read many more of them at night.

They will be doing this for the next six or eight weeks with the Early Action and Early Decision kids, and again in a few months when the blizzard of Regular Admission applications start arriving.

What a job for all concerned are these college essays!

And yet what a fine exercise it is for young people to be writing them. To have to tell what has moved you, steered you, made you weak in the knees with fear or hope or unbounded joy.

High school seniors may think they will do this only once and can then walk away, in that slam-the-book-shut, cap-the-pen sort of way but it isn’t so. All our lives, in all the best and most memorable conversations we have, we are saying what we believe.

We may not always wish to be saying these things but we are saying them just the same. ‘Who we are’ shouts loud over our heads all the time, as that sage of Concord Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked.

And so we do well to bring this ‘Who am I?’ question into conscious awareness, at regular intervals even.

I hold in my lap here three college essays I have found in my files and am moved all over again by their opening sentences:

“As I look back over 17 years of family parties and crowded holiday tables…” begins one. Begins another, “Walk through any high school and you will hear some kid shouting this insult:…” Opens a third, “Through a sky blue screen door, we passed from the bright sun of a mid-summer day onto the back porch of my Great-Grandmother’s house….”

The authors of these sentences were all high school seniors mightily sweating the college essay, and yet in the end all three managed to write something simple and heartfelt.

I am so glad I still have copies of them, because they remind me that once you sit to the task, it isn’t that hard at all to speak your truth.

Still, I want to say God bless the kids doing who are trying to do that now.

And also the families who support them.

And MOSTLY the poor professionals who will spend many hours, days and weeks reading what they have written.