A Tale of Two Letters


I know, I know. Why do I remember things that most of us dutifully forget? How come I discuss details that so many prefer to and do commit to the memory deletion bin? These are good questions, often ones I ask of myself regularly. The answer is, I just do, I just do.

Such is the case with my applications for college some twenty-three years ago, the wonderful fall of ’86. I’ve already commented on my wonderful relations with Sylvia Fasulo, my chain-smoking guidance counselor from my MVHS years. But I neglected to discuss what it was like to get letters of recommendation from my MVHS teachers. Because I trusted almost no one in authority, I ended up with only two letters of recommendation, one out of this world, one the equivalent of used toilet paper. For those of you who either are applying to college this year or are parents whose kids are applying to college this year, here’s a lesson in critical discernment.

Of all the former teachers I decided to ask for a letter of recommendation from, I went to Andy Butler. My Pre-Calc (or Higher Math) class the year before might as well have been a study hall with function formulas. Around the end of October ’85, I began to notice what I thought was a strange everyday occurrence. Andy Butler brought a can of the new Diet Coke to class every morning without fail. We met for class during third or fourth period, around eleven o’clock. Well, he never seemed like he was awake considering he was drinking Diet Coke in front of us at a particularly high energy point of the day. The other thing I noticed was that his can seemed to have the same dents in it day after day.

I spent about a week in Butler’s class just figuring out the dents in his can. If his can had been a map, the dents would’ve been in the southeast corner, down and to the right of the red-brown Diet Coke logo (in the white area) and just above the aluminum gray bottom. When I mentioned what I’d seen to the seniors in my class, Adam, Anthony and Richard all thought that I was crazy at first. By mid-November, though, we’d figured out the dents and the truth.

On one of my after-school runs to C-Town in Pelham I stopped at the deli down the street from 616. Butler was there buying three cases of beer for home. It was about 4:30, just ninety minutes after school had ended, and it wasn’t even Friday.

“I’m going through a rough divorce,” he said, before I could say anything. As if I really wanted to know. “I’m sorry,” I said.

As far as my nose was concerned, Butler was getting refills. I’d solved the mystery, which included Butler’s long disappearances from class for no apparent reason.

This is the teacher whom I asked to write one of the most important letters in my then young life. What the inebriated Butler wrote was eighty-four words of qualified support of my pursuit of postsecondary education. I was “a good student” when I “worked hard,” but I could also become “distracted sometimes.”

Not that I felt I had other places to turn, but there were other and better possibilities. I just didn’t allow myself to realize it at the time. I knew I probably should’ve asked someone else — almost anyone else — for a letter. Cuglietto, Flanagan and Warns may well have been better choices. Even some of my senior-year teachers would’ve done better by me. I just didn’t trust anyone who practiced “tough love” like Cuglietto, put on airs like Flanagan, or compared me to Sam or any other student like Warns did. So I went with Butler’s lousy letter, figuring that Meltzer’s would at least tip the balance.

I didn’t get much help from my teachers other than Meltzer. And Meltzer did help out in numerous ways. He helped me get over some of my embarrassment as I wrote my college essays about my life as the adult teenager at 616. I needed to write this type of essay, since I had some explaining to do about my lack of extracurricular activities. Meltzer helped me interpret the multi-page green-and-white financial sheet that I picked up from the local welfare office outlining my mother’s income between ’83 and ’86, figuring out that my mother’s average income was $16,600 per year as a welfare recipient.

He also set up an interview with a Columbia University alum living in the Wykagyl section of New Rochelle, a rich neighborhood full of small mansions and near a professional-level golf course and country club. The pompous fool seemed as interested in intimidating me with his soliloquy about Columbia’s great traditions as he was in helping me get in. He never asked why someone like me would want to attend. I guess he thought that of course this Black boy would want to go to an Ivy League school like Columbia. “Why do I have to go through this to get into college?,” I thought. I tried to not hold it against Meltzer that I had to witness opulence and arrogance in my college quest.

What Meltzer did that probably helped me most was to bolster my confidence in the college application process. His letter of recommendation was six pages of unrestrained praise. He used so many superlatives to describe my academic success and college potential that I thought that I was the great Dwight Gooden by the time I finished reading it. I was “a great kid,” a “diamond in the rough,” hard-working,” a “critical thinker,” the “best student [he] ever had,” an “intellectual,” smart “beyond belief,” and, well, you get the picture. It made me laugh and blush over and over again after I first read it. I said to Meltzer the next day in the Social Studies Department’s faculty lounge, that “you know more about me than I know about myself.” He just laughed and laughed about that.

It did all work out. Meltzer’s letter — more like a six-page paper on every positive quality I had at the time — more than made up for my lackluster letter from Butler. I should’ve been wise enough to get two letters like Meltzer’s instead of the one. But then again, given where I went to school, I’m not completely sure I had a better alternative.

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