Their assignment was to get a letter of recommendation. It had to be typed, it had to be at least five hundred words, it had to be sealed in an envelope, and it had to be genuine. A real, honest-to-God, package-it-up-and-send-it-to-the-admissions-office letter of recommendation that would be so good it could get Frank and Jesse James in on Hardship Scholarships.
And so they left.
So much of teaching involves asking kids to do impossible things. If you ask them to build a solar powered steamship, memorize and recite Anglo Saxon love poetry or build a six foot long Viking Boat out of popsicle sticks, they will do it. They will whine and cry and snivel to their parents about the stupid things their teacher asks them to do. And in the end, three tough guys will stand in the back of the room looking stupid while the rest of the class brings in Viking Boats with oars, sails, and toothpick benches.
And so it was on Monday morning when Bobby stayed after class. Bobby is on the five year plan, but he gets his homework in. Bobby leaves school at eleven to go work roofing with his Dad. Bobby has a parole officer who calls every Friday. He tells me he brought his letter in. He tells me it is from his mother.
She wrote a great letter. She used details, told two nice stories about his help with his ailing grandparents, and relayed how he had turned his life around after he stopped hanging around with troublemakers.
I did the only thing I could do; I handed it back to him.
Rejection ruins us. We put everything we have into our projects, whether it be composing a song, designing a house, or wooing a spouse. Then, at our most vulnerable, when the fruits of our labors lay outstretched in front of us, you will get a very polite note explaining that this just isn’t right for us, but best of luck in the future. It takes a very long time to sweep up the shards of that dream, dump them in the trash, and start again.
Bobby, myself, and the guys on the park benches all have ideas of who we are. We are twenty pounds lighter, twenty I.Q. points smarter, and just moments away from being rich beyond our wildest dreams. Leave us alone with our coffee and danishes, and those dreams will wrap us up like a blanket and we can sit their all day spending our fortunes. We’ll never be ruined.
But we’ll never accomplish anything either. Dreams can’t die if they never live. And since dying hurts so much, perhaps its better if our dreams never live. Imagine if you make it to an NFL training camp, then get cut and have to return home. Imagine if you go out to Hollywood, and never even make an ad. Imagine if you apply to college, and don’t get in. The shame of it would kill you.
In the words of Marianne Williamson, “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us.” If fear of rejection paralyzes us, then we accomplish nothing and our words will fork no lightning. Hoops, for all that he is, cannot go beyond his father’s work or his mother’s good wishes. To look for more is to risk more than rejection, it is to risk success.
I have been trying to teach my downloading dreamers and ipod isolationists to “accept rejection.” Rejection only comes when you reach out and it only hurts when you make an honest effort. Their home town is an island committed to nurturing and protecting its’ little ones from harm. In leaving home, they risk that they will not be rejected, but will instead be accepted. The dream will walk with us all and grow middle-aged with a mortgage and invoices in the dashboard.
Perhaps it sinks in. Many of my students came back with letters of recommendation from priests, teachers, coaches, and bosses. We moved on
Bobby has not been back. Instead, he has been home, lying in bed, sick. His mother answers my questions in monosyllables. I may never see him again. Or, I may see him downtown on a park bench wrapped up in failure and drinking a cup of coffee.