On a recent Spring afternoon I was sitting in my office doing whatever the demands of the week had brought me when the phone interrupted my frail concentration. The voice on the other end said "Hello Dr. Hofmann, its Carl Behke!" The tone of his voice implied not only that I knew Carl, but that we were good friends. "Carl!" I replied -- in a tone that reciprocated the familiarity.
Not being one to fake familiarity I quickly admitted to Carl that, although his name was 'very familiar' (an exaggeration on my part), I could not place a face with his name. Carl then reminded me that he took my management seminar course eight years ago and that I had given him a 'B'. Of course! How could it have slipped my mind?
Almost a decade had passed since Carls name or face had activated my synapses, and my memory banks were doing well to even recognize a familiar name out of the thousands of students in my past, not to mention all the other people. Carl was applying to several seminaries and he wanted me to write him a recommendation.
The small percentage of students I remember for more than a year after they graduate are either trouble makers who will never ask me for a recommendation or very bright students who will never need one. It always seems to be the ones in between who make such requests and place me in the untenable position of writing about that of which I know nothing.
Carl promised to send me a picture of himself, along with the materials to be filled out for his application to seminary. We then had a short pleasant conversation which summed up his life and mine over the past eight years. After we hung up I had the feeling that Carl had manipulated me into renewing an old friendship which never existed in the first place. It is the mark of a good salesman, and Carl had been in sales in Southern California for the last seven years.
Having agreed to write the recommendation, I looked up Carl in my grade book. His name was not there. It seems that even Carl could not remember what he was asking me to recall. I felt better about myself but frustrated at the task ahead of me. I finally located him in my seminar class from the following year. Sure enough he had gotten a 'B' for the course, but it was hardly enough to recommend him for advanced study in theology. I put the matter aside to await more information from Carl.
A week or two later a large manila envelope arrived in the mail. Inside were forms to fill out, a letter from Carl, a six-page essay on the hows and whys of his decision to devote the rest of his life to God, and a picture of Carl with his sister. Carl appeared to be 50% bald, but his face did look familiar. His sister was beautiful. I was reminded of all the sales advertisements I had ever seen where the product being advertised is displayed next to a beautiful woman -- except Carls sister did not have the kind of beauty I associate with theology.
The application requested the usual things that faculty rarely know about a current student, let alone one from eight years past. Things like leadership ability, creativity, ability to do advanced study, and ethical/moral strengths were to be rated. The quantitative ratings are never the hardest part because all you need to do is circle some number on a scale of one-to-five or one-to-ten. The really tough part is the short descriptions you must write, revealing such things as the individuals major strengths and weaknesses. This application wanted me to discuss Carls needs in personal and spiritual development.
Reaching into the depths of creativity, frequent glances at Carls picture, and some pseudo parapsychological activity allowed me to turn hypothecation and conjecture into a credible recommendation. I was pleased with myself in much the same way as someone might be who has just bluffed his way into a good job. Carl would surely get into seminary, and if he did poorly it would hardly be traced back to me. Nevertheless I did feel some responsibility in the matter, but the ethical ramifications of it were just to complex to be considered.
Carls letter expressed generous amounts of thanks and appreciation. He said that he did not know how he could ever repay the favor. I glanced at the picture one last time and briefly had an idea -- but the ethics of the situation were complex enough already.