Paying it Forward

There are certain truths in this world that are absolute:  you will pay income taxes, rain will fall from the sky, and “Renegade” by Styx is the greatest song ever written.  Some unavoidable truths, such as those, are really just part of life, meaning we accept them and move on.  We tend to fight other things we think are true, but then are proven wrong.

I believe there’s good in all people.  Here’s a story about that being profoundly incorrect.

My senior year of college was a pretty busy time for me.  I had just gotten engaged, I was finishing up my final semester with a full class load, I was working part-time as a sportswriter for a newspaper, and I was in the midst of applying to graduate school.  The marriage thing was set in stone, I never had a problem keeping my grades up, and I was covering two or three sporting events a week, mostly doing my writing at night to meet deadlines.  Really, the only bit of stress I had (despite how busy things were) was the application process for grad school.  The school I wanted to attend seemed to be the perfect fit.  They required a 3.0 GPA for acceptance, and mine was higher than that so I was good there.  They encouraged people with writing experience to apply.  I was putting out pretty quality sports stories, and I had samples ready to submit from my time as an undergrad.  They also required two letters of recommendation from college professors.  This is the one I was least worried about, as I already had two professors in mind.

The first professor was in the journalism department of my undergraduate institution.  She was the sweetest lady at the school, and I’d been in her classes five separate times.  She always wrote lots of comments on my writing, which I liked, because she was honest with her praise, and delivered appropriate criticism.  She even had a day set aside where she cancelled class so students could come to her office, one by one, and she could give a face to face analysis of our writing.  She discussed strengths and weaknesses, and even offered to help us.  She was always available for help, and was my favorite professor.  So of course, being the amazing woman she was, she typed me up  a great recommendation letter.  Fortunately for me, she has attended the school I was applying to, even serving as an adjunct professor for a period of time.  It meant a lot she did that for me, and to this day I’m thankful for her actions.

The second professor was a little trickier.  I had two in mind, but only wanted to pick one.  The first professor I considered asking was a political science professor.  My major was in journalism, but I’d also considered going to law school because of my interest in economics and government, so over the course of my time as an undergrad, I’d also taken this professor five times.

But, I figured it would probably be better to get my second recommendation from a professor who can better access my skill set as a journalism major.  I took three classes with this second professor.  He described these courses as “three of the hardest courses you will find at this college.”  Taking his challenge, I went ahead and aced all three classes, so I figured he was a perfect person to ask.  However, I was having some trouble getting hold of him, so I just shot a quick email.  I guess it really wasn’t quick, because I went into a pretty fair amount of detail, and quite frankly I probably sounded a little pathetic.  I don’t have the exact copy, but I remember fairly vividly, so here’s a paraphrased rendition of that email:

Dr. ……,

I’m sorry to bother you, and I’m not even so sure you will remember me, but I was a student of yours in COMM 330,450,467.  I’m reaching out to you today because I’ve recently begun the process of applying to graduate school, so I am currently trying to acquire some letters of recommendation.  I only need two, and I was hoping I could ask you to write me one, because I feel your three classes were some of the most challenging, rigorous courses I’ve taken here at … .  I did well in these classes, and I was hoping you would possibly vouch for my abilities as a student.  A letter from you would mean a tremendous amount to me because I have a great deal of respect for you as a professor, and the knowledge I gained in your courses was vital to my learning journey.  Again, I deeply apologize for the burden, and I completely understand if you decline my request.  I’m sure you are asked this a lot, and I’m sure you’re busy with other things, to which I also understand.  If you could just let me know that would be great.  Thanks so much

As you can see, it’s totally pathetic how much I made myself sound like a wandering beggar, needing his heroic charity just for a hot meal.  Anyway, a week or so passed, and I really did understand because I’m sure he had other stuff going on.  So I didn’t mind too much.  However, another 10 days passed since my original email, so I typed a follow-up, basically reiterating everything I said, asking if he received my first message, telling him again I understand if he says no, and then, of course, profusely apologizing for my complete intrusion on his personal life.

Another day passed.  Eighteen days after my original email I check my inbox and I get this response:  (I don’t have a screen shot of the original email anymore, but this is the exact, verbatim, word for word account of what this professor typed back to me)

Dan,

Yes, I got your message.  I was on vacation on didn’t think I would be bothered with such trivial issues such as student questions.

I was shocked.  Keep in mind, this was the most tenured professor in the communication department of my school, and his wife served as the chairmen for the School of Communication.

I didn’t respond.  How could I have?  There’s nothing I could have said.  I wanted to say so much, but I needed to be the bigger person.

I told people about this.  No one in the administration, mind you, but I disclosed this to my friends, my family, and to Haley.  I couldn’t believe it.  I think what bothered me more than anything is the fact this guy was a professor with a Ph D.  That means years ago, he had to do the same thing I did.  Before he applied to grad school, he had to seek goodwill of professors to write him a letter of recommendation.  He completely ignored the good deed someone did for him years ago, and completely spat in my face.

I don’t think I was unreasonable.  I don’t think I was terribly bothersome.  I even told him I totally understood if he said no.  If he would’ve emailed me back and said “No, Dan, I don’t want to write you a letter of recommendation,” I would have been completely 100% okay with that.  The God’s honest truth is a really did respect this guy as a professor, and he seemed like the type of guy who would help a student out.

I will never forget this exchange.  I think about it everyday.  I got over the anger quickly.  But I’ll never forget how I was treated.  More than anything, his actions have inspired me.  I hope someday I’m in a position to help a kid out.  I pray I’m given the opportunity to help make a difference in someone’s life, even if it’s something as simple as writing a letter of recommendation.  His negative attitude in that email drives me every day to be a positive influence when I’m his age.  Maybe someday a kid with a blog will write a post about me, only he will talk about how I wrote him a nice letter.

If you take nothing else away from this story, just learn to pay it forward.  Even though the negativity of someone you respect completely takes the wind out of your sails, don’t be angry.  Use the emotions from that experience to do something positive.

For privacy reasons, I will not be disclosing this individual’s identity.  I’m not one to burn bridges or hold grudges, so I will not publicly attach his name to an article that is portraying him in a very negative light.

The good news, the political science professor, being the awesome guy he is, wrote me a great letter of recommendation.  He’s also the type of guy to take his shirt off his own back and give it to you if you ever needed it.

It goes to show, there really is good in everyone.

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