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Have you ever written a negative recommendation letter?

That question got me to thinking about the one student I did not want to recommend. She was from a wealthy family, always got what she wanted, and never had to work for anything. She was a holy terror when she did not get her way, but because of her economic and social standing, the small school where I taught usually made sure that she did get her way.

Her senior year, she applied to the most expensive school (of course) in the state, and was required to have a core teacher write a recommendation. As her senior English teacher, I was the only core teacher she had. All the others were electives and goof-off classes, and she usually roamed the halls during half of them.

So, it fell on my shoulders to write the letter of recommendation. I was delighted just now to find that it still exists on my hard drive, after 12 years. Negative or not? You decide. Obviously, I have changed her name:

Gertrude is a highly intelligent, talented person who shows great promise. She is fiercely loyal to friends, and when involved in a job or project she likes, she excels. She has problems with the strictures and disciplines of a classroom in a public school, and needs to learn to use her time wisely. She has been raised in a family not favorable to the normal maturation process. She has always gotten everything she wanted, and certain relatives have been able to give it to her.

As a result, she has not been trained in personal responsibility, and has sometimes been a mild discipline problem. However, a university experience will require her to take care of herself for the first time, and she will find that she cannot always have “her own way.”

Gertrude is a very likable person who is usually very congenial, and has usually made good grades in my class. She is an excellent writer with high reading skills, and all she lacks to be an honor student is personal discipline, which has never been encouraged by those who have raised her. School has not been challenging to her, because she is one of those students whose intelligence level does not require her to apply herself to make the grades. I think a university level of studies will enhance her abilities to excel and improve.

All in all, I personally would recommend her for admission to a university such as yours that develops these strengths in students. I think she will do very well as she learns what it is like in the “real” world, outside the artificial strata of a very small school in a small community.

I would be happy to answer any further questions you might have regarding Gertrude. She has great potential to excel in whatever studies she chooses to pursue.

The school did not admit her, by the way. But I felt I was honest without completely flaming her. To her credit, she never complained to me that she did not get accepted. I think she knew she would have to work if she went there.

It was the only recommendation letter I ever wrote, wishing I could say, “She is an unholy terror, and actually needs to spend time in a Gulag where she can be broken and made into a halfway decent human being.”

But that would not have been very nice. However, if she had applied for admission to a gulag, I would have wholeheartedly recommended her with a glowing letter.


—- In response to many, the above “gulag” reference was a poor attempt at satire. I hope that people would understand that someone who has spent over half his life teaching at secondary and post-secondary levels must have some love for students.

I loved all my students, including “Gertrude,” and to this day, am still overjoyed when a former student, even one I clashed with, finds me and thanks me for having cared.

My first thought was to delete the “gulag” reference, but that would negate some comments below, and I don’t feel right about that. For those of you who wonder if satire is an effective literary tool, I recommend Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” In satirical reference, we don’t really mean what we say.

Though my story seems light-hearted, I need to note that I wrote the recommendation only after some serious consultation with the high school counselor, who told me to be “truthful, but kind.”

Maybe I’m naive, but I did not think that I kept her out of the university. She needed a letter of recommendation from a core teacher, and I was the only one she had. If I had not written the letter, she would have had no chance at all.

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