Last summer, I made one of the biggest decisions of my life. I quit my job as a high school English teacher, a position I’d held for the last decade.
It was a tough decision because I knew there would be so much that I’d miss. The kids were at the top of the list, of course. That whole thing about the joy of molding young minds and making a difference is usually too inspirational-quote-on-a-coffee-mug for me, but there’s an element of truth to it. Not a year went by when I didn’t have to discreetly wipe away a tear after a kid expressed genuine gratitude for their time in my class.
I also miss talking shit about those little fuckers with my colleagues at lunch. You don’t realize how much fun it is to dunk on a 16-year-old until you can’t anymore.
My new job is fun and challenging, but it’s 100 percent virtual, and that gets kind of lonely. My only companions are the floating heads on my Zoom screen and the patrons of the local McDonald’s where I occasionally do my work.
Like the guy who sat next to me the other morning who washed down his McGriddle with a bottle of Wray & Nephew rum. Or the dude who got into an obscenity-laced phone argument and then picked a fight with another customer who asked him to keep it down.
“It’s a free country, motherfucker,” the dude yelled. “You wanna step outside and tell me where I can and can’t talk on the phone, let’s fucking go.”
See, this is the type of interaction I wouldn’t have at school, because the social studies teachers would be quick to point out that the Constitution doesn’t mention the right to yell the N-word while eating a fish filet.
I hated grading papers and pretending to pay attention at faculty meetings. Ditto delicately explaining to parents that their darling Blaine was getting a B- because he’s lazy as fuck.
Most teachers would tell you the worst stretch of the year is between President’s Day and Easter—what one colleague called “the Bataan Death March”—but for me, the worst time of year was college app season.
From the first day of school until November 1, the seniors give off this manic energy resulting from the stress of applying for college. They’re knotted tighter than a Boy Scout merit badge project, certain that if they don’t get into their school of choice, their lives are over. And fair enough. I’ve seen those college applications—they look like a fucking scavenger hunt. You want to get into Duke? First, we need a transcript and a letter from your 9th grade English teacher. Then we need a picture of a speed limit sign that doesn’t end in 0 or 5 and a cassette tape of Hall & Oates: Live at the Troubadour.
This stress transfers to me in the form of recommendation letters, an archaic ritual where I’m required to put a stamp of approval on these kids I barely know.
I don’t get the point of them, to be honest. I had ramen and bourbon for dinner last night. Who am I to say you’re worthy of getting into fucking PRINCETON? They wouldn’t let me mop the floors there!
Most of the time, they were for students I had a close connection with—the editor of my newspaper, or the kid who wanted to pursue journalism at my alma mater.
But those letters were few and far between. Most of the time, the requests came from students with whom I only had brief, surface relationships. Those were the hardest to write, like giving a eulogy for the great uncle you met once at a family picnic.
After a while, I thought about the sheer mathematics of some admission officer reading every single recommendation and realized there was no way they were appreciating my compelling word choice and sentence structure.
So I started getting lazy. I wrote one letter and made it my template, and every time a student would ask for one, I’d do a quick find and replace, and BAM! Instant recommendation. I used to have to fix the gender pronouns too, but in the last two years, I just replaced them with they/them. Thanks for the shortcut, woke culture!
If the student was average, I wouldn’t gush or lie. If I didn’t have anything nice to say, I’d just talk about the course instead. IB Language & Literature SL1 is a rigorous curriculum encompassing… If there’s one thing teachers are good at, it’s making the shit they teach sound SUPER important. And that way, I could conveniently leave out that Meredith only got a C+ in said rigorous course.
I also did a better job of saying no as the years wore on. If a student’s performance was so egregious that I couldn’t hide it with teacher-speak, I’d just decline. “I don’t think I’m the right person to write this letter,” I’d say. “Maybe there’s another teacher who might be a better fit?”
Usually they’d hang their head and agree. But once, the year after the pandemic, I had a student named Kyle who dug in his heels. Kyle and I had a good rapport, but he was a total pain in the ass and never turned in any work. The D I gave him was a gift.
“That’s okay,” Kyle said when I suggested I didn’t have much to say. “Nobody else will write one for me.”
So I begrudgingly wrote Kyle’s letter, and here’s what it said:
To Whom it May Concern:
My name is Sam Hedenberg and I am writing in reference to Kyle Swanson, a student whom I taught in both the 2017-18 and 2019-20 school years.
I’ll be honest: I suggested to Kyle that I might not be the right person to write this letter, but he insisted, so here we are.
I taught Kyle in both English 9 and IB Language & Literature SL1. Over the course of those two years, Kyle consistently demonstrated himself as a student with great potential who did not put forth sufficient effort.
Kyle rarely engaged in classroom discussions or lessons. When I did occasionally call on him, he had to be brought up to speed on what we were discussing because he wasn’t paying attention. Kyle’s laptop and cell phone were a significant distraction. Most of the time, he played video games during class.
I enjoyed the personal rapport I had with Kyle. He was fun, and we had good discussions about sports and pop culture before class. I tried to encourage Kyle to apply himself and reach his potential, but by his own admission, he couldn’t be bothered.
I’ve never written a letter for someone whom I wouldn’t recommend for a program, but in 2020, nothing surprises me anymore.
If you have any additional questions or would like more information on Kyle, please do not hesitate to contact me.
I felt kind of bad about it after I hit send. I mean, I didn’t want to torpedo this kid’s life just because he didn’t care about Ursula LeGuin or whatever other bullshit I had to teach him. What if he ended up sitting next to me at McDonald’s, getting smashed on cheap rum at 9 in the morning BECAUSE OF ME?
Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. Kyle hit me up later in the year to let me know he’d gotten into the University of Virginia—his first choice. “I know you didn’t want to write a letter for me, so I really appreciate you doing it,” he said.
“No problem,” I said, wiping away a tear. “I’m so happy I could make a difference.”