I got a call from a friend of mine the other day asking if I'd write a letter of recommendation on her behalf to a medical school. No problem, I said. I write a lot. I can handle it.
A week later, I still hadn't finished the letter. It seemed simple at first. Ivy League schools have liberal admissions boards. Why not tailor my recommendation accordingly? My friend, I explained in my first draft, is a promising scientist with a heart, a cross between Dr. Spock and Al Sharpton. More than merely an aspiring doctor, I wrote, she is a "dedicated community organizer," a "longtime activist," a -- and this was my personal favorite -- "passionate advocate for the rights of the underserved." Whatever that means.
They'll love this, I thought, and got ready to lick the envelope. Then I stopped. Should I really do this? I wondered. I'm not even sure my friend is a Democrat. Is it really a good idea to bet on the reaction of college administrators? As I learned long ago, probably not.
Senior year in college, one of my roommates wound up in trouble with an economics professor. As was his custom, he hadn't bothered to show up to a single economics class all semester, assuming that he could learn everything he needed to know in 48 coffee-soaked hours and do decently on the exam. Days before the midterm, though, he got a call from the professor. "Just thought I'd let you know," she said, "that I've counted each one of your absences against you. No matter how well you do on the test, there is no way you can pass my course."
My roommate was stunned, and once I heard about it, so was I. Failing a class simply for doing no work? Outrageous. We decided to find a solution. But what could excuse a semester's worth of missed economics classes? A death in the family seemed a bit dramatic. Conscription struck us both as implausible, at least in peacetime. Then it came to me: How about mental illness? Perfect, we agreed.
He located a textbook on abnormal psychology, I sat down at the keyboard, and we got to work. It wasn't easy to settle on a malady. We scanned the index. Agoraphobia? Too obscure. Schizophrenia? Too scary. Chronic fatigue syndrome? Too hard to explain. We settled for something that sounded grave but not dangerous, acute neurotic depression.
"Dear Professor," began the letter, which was signed by a nonexistent psychologist from Maryland, "I am writing to you on behalf of a patient of mine who is also a student of yours." The psychologist had very official-looking stationery, and he seemed to take an almost avuncular interest in my roommate, Bill. Bill, the shrink explained, had loads of problems. In addition to being a suicidal alcoholic, Bill still bore scars from growing up amid "maladaptive family patterns." Bill's behavioral symptoms, the psychologist wrote, constituted "a textbook example of acute neurotic depression." And indeed they did, since we copied them verbatim from the textbook. "Bill," the letter said, "has difficulty concentrating, exhibits a high level of anxiety and apprehensiveness, together with diminished activity, lowered self-confidence, constricted interests and a general loss of initiative."
I remember chuckling as I typed the letter, sure it would reduce the professor to weepy sympathy. But just to be sure, we ended on a note of hope: "Fortunately, Bill has responded well to a combination of antidepressant and anti-anxiety drugs. He is also attending Alcoholics Anonymous. I am in regular contact with Bill and think that his chances for recovery are good."
Good, but not a sure thing. The last paragraph was pretty explicit about college professors' role in Bill's recovery process: "The road to wellness is often a long one, but I believe that, if given the chance, Bill can rise above his recent past. Of paramount importance are instances in which Bill can meet success in tangible ways. He is an impressive and likable young man who needs opportunities to redress his mistakes. I hope that this letter has made Bill's situation clear and you will show him the sensitivity that his full recovery requires."
That ought to do it, we thought. We were right. Within about two hours, the dean of students summoned Bill to his office and kicked him out of school.
What had seemed to us like a clever excuse looked to the administration like cause for immediate hospitalization, not to mention a potential liability nightmare. The dean asked Bill to pack his bags and be off campus by nightfall. "We just don't have the facilities to meet your needs," he said with what seemed like sadness.
It was another three years before Bill got his undergraduate degree, though I'm happy to report that everything worked out well enough in the end. He graduated at the top of his class from a well-regarded law school. I was in the front row when he got his diploma, the most relieved person in the room.