Year after year, I am asked to write letters of recommendation for students’ college applications. While it’s a tedious task, and one that I do not get paid for and write on my own time, it’s one I take seriously. I’m not one of those who write generic letters of recommendation, merely changing the he to a she or vice versa. For those students whom I agree to write their letters, it’s because I do stand behind the words I write– a representation of their character as a person and a student– and I sign my name.

I am reminded of John Proctor’s speech in The Crucible about signing his name…

Where ethics comes into play w/ letters of recommendations I have only experienced on a few occasions, but none more questionable than this experience:

About 5 years ago STUDENT asked me to write his letter of recommendation. Now I’d had this student in three courses; I thought I knew him pretty well. He was on the shy side, but also diligent in his schoolwork. He worked well with others and had above average intelligence, and a dry sense of humor when one was able to tap into it. So, “Yes, STUDENT, I’d be happy to write your letter.”

Simultaneous to him being in my class, he took another English elective second semester– a speech class. The speech teacher knew he was in my full-year. Early Spring, she approached me in the faculty room and queried about the kind of student he was. I had nothing but good things to say, aside from his shyness, I thought he’d do well in her course; moreover, I thought it would be good for him.

She shared with me that STUDENT had given his first speech earlier that day. The topic of his speech was How To Lie on your College Application and Get Into College. She went onto to relay an anecdote he’d shared about embellishing a lie to the Dean of Admissions in a college interview he’d had, and he’d been ACCEPTED.

I dismissed the story as a farce. I’d initially assumed that STUDENT was trying to get a laugh out of his classmates and ingratiate himself to them. I’d chalked it up to his dry sense of humor perhaps going too far. I asked permission to discuss the speech with him.

Next period, after class, I called him up to my desk to talk to me. He sat down, full of all of the politeness & respect he’d always shown. After sharing my conversation with him, I asked if he cared to explain. He simply said, “Yes, I made that speech.” I thought I’d misheard him, so I probed, “and was it truthful?” “Yes,” he responded with conviction.

After being stymied for a second, I composed my thoughts. “You do realize,” I said, “this is problematic, as I attested to character in your letters of recommendation.”

He very cockily replied, “I hadn’t given it a thought, but I got accepted, so no worries.”

No worries?? I was thinking. Are you kidding me?? The nonchalance with which he’d just admitted cheating and, more so, mocking it in grandiose style for all of his class to hear was unbelievable to me. A million thoughts ran through my head: what should I do with this information? call home? discuss it w/ his parents? the school he’d just been accepted to? I decided to close the conversation with him by informing him that the topic wasn’t closed.

I’d decided to bring this discovery to the guidance department. I wanted to know just what was on his college resume: what was real and what wasn’t. His counselor agreed we should look further before taking action.

The way she handled it was by calling him to her office to ask him to delineate the truths from the untruths. She said if he could substantiate enough of it with proof, we should leave it alone. I’m not sure I was wholly convinced as she was to “just” leave it alone, but I conceded to her taking the lead.

The conclusion she had drawn was that *most* of what he had written could be corroborated. There was one all out lie that he’d made about starting up a club that hadn’t been in existence before, which he actually, according to the starter- of- the- club, tried to bully his friend into lying on his behalf (which the starter confided in me because he felt it was unETHICAL to lie– at least some students have scruples!!)

We’d had a meeting in which he presented a humble version of himself, back peddling, saying he’d embellished the extent to which he “lied” ( a word he never used ). Instead, he said he’d written that he was part of a club that he’d only attended one meeting for, and part of another he’d only signed up for… yadda, yadda, yadda; his lies started becoming a blur. The guidance counselor was of the mind that we shouldn’t pursue the issue any farther (which I’d taken as taking the path of least resistance). In her words, she stated, “I’m not going to tell you what to do as far as the letter of recommendation goes, but I would leave it alone if I were you.”

I grappled with her response for two reasons. Number one: I’d signed my name to my testament of his character. And not only did I sign that letter, but I’m often asked to write recommendations to that very school. I didn’t want my name to mean nothing if he decided to go cheat his way through college. It wouldn’t be fair for future students to have my letter disregarded on their behalf because STUDENT turned out to be infamous in one way or another. Number two: I wanted him to learn a lesson. I didn’t want him going through life thinking embellishing truths or telling them slant was okay in every situation.

What complicated the entire matter was the fact that his mother was a Dean of (a discipline) at the very college he’d been accepted to! Not smart, STUDENT, not smart!

I felt this incredible pressure to do the right thing, but I wasn’t sure what that was. I lost sleep. I stressed over it. It was quite a predicament: complicated, now, on multiple levels. After much deliberation and consulting with the speech teacher and guidance counselor, I’d decided to call a meeting with STUDENT and his mom. I wanted it all out there and was willing to allow her to do with the information as she saw fit. She cried and was apologetic, STUDENT sat there, quiet and humbled, as the speech teacher and I tried to bestow the importance of honesty upon him. I felt it was a compromise. I thought it was the end of the situation.

About two weeks later, I was at home reading/correcting a stack of essays written about King Lear. I come across STUDENT’s essay. I read it. I read it again. Something isn’t right. The language is OFF, and the topic isn’t anything we’d even broached upon in class. I decide to Google a sentence, hoping to find nothing. Instead, I find the WHOLE essay, online. He’d copied the entire thing, printed his name at the top of the paper and handed it in as his own work– not even a citation. I was angry– livid perhaps. I felt taken advantage of, and, more so, I’d regretted my earlier decision of a compromise.

The next day at school, I had him pulled from his first period class by one of the security guards and escorted to my room, empty, conveniently due to a prep period. On the desk in front of me. I had his essay, on which I’d begun to highlight the similarities to the original document, but stopped because they were too abundant. I had beside it a printed-out version of the original. I was nervous, but kept my cool. He sat down. I said, “Do you want to tell me about this essay?”

He replied, “What?” playing dumb.

I probed further, “Do you want to tell me why you plagiarized this essay?”

He said, “I didn’t.”

I proceeded to show him the documents, side by side. He bowed his head in shame. He’d been caught. I asked, “How bad do you not want to go to the college where your mom works?” I’d thought I figured it all out. “You know I’m rescinding your letter of recommendation, don’t you?” He nodded. “What happens from there is out of my hands. And I have to give you a zero for this paper which means you will flunk the marking period, but not the course.” He sat there in silence, not making eye contact. I continued, “STUDENT, I don’t think you’re a bad kid, but you are making bad choice after bad choice. Bad choices is not what defines us as people, but what we do in reaction to them does. I hope this is a good lesson for you. It truly is a life lesson, and one I hope you will never forget.” He looked me straight in the eye, and then never made eye contact with me again.

I wrote to the Dean of Admissions, a truthful letter but not one that included all of the details. For it was not my hope to derail his future, but I needed to do what was right for myself, and I hoped that it was what was right for him too. The Dean responded immediately by asking for a phone call from me. He explained over the phone what a predicament he was in since STUDENT’s mom was a respected member of the faculty. He asked for the details, and then he asked for my advice– something I found extremely genuine and fair. My advice was academic probation vs. revoking his acceptance. I confided to him what I’d ended my meeting with STUDENT saying. He heeded my advice, but took it one step further by calling the student into his office for a meeting (something that I hope scared the crap out of him, enough for the lesson to hit home).

Sometime in August, I received a manila envelope addressed to me. Inside was an authentically written King Lear paper by STUDENT and a personal note in his handwriting. He said he didn’t want to leave what had transpired between us at the end of the school year as my last memory of him. He said that he’d rewritten the paper, not for credit, but just because he wanted me to know he could do it. He said he was sorry he didn’t have the chance to thank me in person for being his most memorable teacher. He said he respected me and learned a lot from me.

That whole turn of events was among the most difficult of events I’ve ever faced in my professional career. Doing what is right is not always clear and is seldom easy. I don’t know if STUDENT took it upon himself to make that last gesture or if his mom put him up to it; I hope it was his choice.

Every once in a while, we find ourselves at a crossroads– one that takes us by surprise, something we didn’t ask for or even bring on ourselves, but one we need to face. And at the end of the day, after sifting through what’s right and wrong, we have to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and say, “I made the right choice, today.”

“Ethics is not definable, is not implementable, because it is not conscious; it involves not only our thinking, but also our feeling.” Valdemar W. Setzer

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