I am a senior in high school and have been dating the same boy, Allston (fake name! duh!) for over three years. We first told each other we loved each other when we were just starting tenth grade and we promised to be faithful to each other. We started having sex when we were fifteen. There were even some pregnancy scares before I started being more careful. We have been through a lot together.
The problem is that I just got into my dream school, with great financial aid. Allston was accepted at some good colleges, but none of them are within 500 miles of my dream school. The other problem is that I am not even sure I want to stay with Allston. I still love him, I guess, but there are lots of days when I would just as soon not see him. I get bored and then I feel guilty.
What should I do? The world seems like such a mean dishonest place. Most men treat women like pieces of meat. And here I am with a kind, smart, respectful boy I know I can trust, and part of me just wants to leave him and break all my promises and go off to Massachusetts. There are two schools we both got into that would give me a decent education. But part of me thinks that even if I went to the same school as Allston I might want to date somebody else. I already sometimes do want to, actually. But isn’t life supposed to involve making sacrifices for a larger good?
—Indecisive in Indianapolis
You should go to your dream school.
I would advise this even if you had not mentioned any reservations about your feelings for Allston. It sounds as if you two have had a loving and meaningful relationship, but you are still very young. In our society, at least, you are barely into your adolescence, with many years ahead for learning and exploration. There is every reason not to limit your educational or personal choices at this point. This is important for all young people, but especially for young women who, all too often, have been culturally conditioned to choose romance, safety, and the wishes of others over challenge and opportunity. The chance to go to the college of your dreams may be one of the greatest opportunities life offers you. Take it.
Besides, you do have some serious reservations about Allston. You “guess” you love him, but you admit that you get bored sometimes, think about dating other people, and welcome time alone more than you used to. These are all good reasons for considering a breakup even without the college-choice issue. Putting a few hundred miles between you may be just what you both need so that you can move on.
It would be shortsighted tin the extreme to opt for a school you find merely “decent” in hopes of preserving a relationship you are already starting to find unsatisfactory. You would very likely end up being not just unhappy with Allston but also disappointed by Decent U and understandably resentful at having sacrificed your dream.
You mention two overarching reasons for staying with Allston. One is that he is a good, respectful, intelligent man in a world where men like that are hard to come by. This may be true, and you should certainly be careful where you give your heart, to say nothing of how closely you watch your drink glasses at bars and parties, in the years ahead. Even so, most of us have managed to go out there and find a pool of good guys from which to choose and be chosen at various points in our lives. Besides, if you are already limiting your educational choices, and trying to talk yourself into staying in a relationship that no longer seems to fulfill you, because of some fear that you will never find a good man again, the jerks have already won. I would also just throw out there that you probably had excellent reasons for shooting for your dream school—perhaps you were dreaming that going there would satisfy your intellectual curiosity, prepare you for your chosen career or guide you in choosing one, introduce you to all kinds of new people, and help you become independent and self-confident. These are the goals you should keep in mind when making your college choice—and, as a collateral benefit, they will make you a stronger, savvier, more independent woman who will know how to recognize the good men and fend off the bad ones.
But what about duty, the second reason you gave for staying with Allston and giving up Dream U? Yes, there certainly are promises we should keep and relationships we should preserve even when times are hard or, often worse, boring. And there are certainly duties that should win out over our strong preferences, even college or career preferences. I understand your concern about being faithful to Allston, and you sound like a lovely young woman for caring about his feelings, honoring your long (for high school) relationship, and wanting to keep your word.
I do not think, though—and I doubt that anybody else, with the possible exception of Allston and perhaps a few of your more overwrought friends, would think—that your promises and duties to Allston are anywhere near this level. You were, and are, simply too young and inexperienced to be bound either by the vows you made or the time you’ve spent dating.
If it had so happened that you still found Allston endlessly fascinating and fulfilling, things might be different. But you do not, and that is fine. In fact, it may be better. This is your time to experiment and grow. If you look around you, you will see how few people end up building a life with their first love. Most people will tell you that they are very glad they moved on and eventually settled on someone better suited to them (or on a happy single life), and equally glad that they had some variety and fun along the way.
While we are still on the topic of duty, you should think about what you do owe Allston: honesty. Your boredom and restlessness do not sound like temporary blips on your romantic radar while you are stressed about deciding which college to choose. They sound like the way a person feels when she is falling out of love. You will not be doing Allston any favors if you stay with him, and even follow him to college, out of a sense of “sacrificing for some greater good.” No healthy eighteen-year-old man wants to be an object of duty whose girlfriend sees not just giving up on her first-choice college, but also dating him exclusively, as sacrifices. He will pick up on this, if he hasn’t started to already.
Talk to Allston. Tell him you plan to go to Dream U, and that you think your choice makes this a good time to talk about your relationship. The two of you may want to hold on to some part of it for now—go to Prom together, maybe, or date exclusively until you both leave for college, then see how it goes after that. Or one or both of you may prefer a clean break. Whatever happens, I suspect that you will not be together this time next year (except as loving exes, if you are lucky).
Who knows what the future, even the distant future, may bring? You may transfer to Decent U two years from now after falling back in love, although I very much doubt it. Or you may get back together with Allston after trading photos of the grandkids at the Nobel awards in 2057. Or not. In the meantime, I hope you have a fantastic, guilt-free college experience, with plenty of loving but even more learning. Go Dream U!
I am a faculty member at a small liberal arts college in the Northeast. I have a student I’ll call Joe, who has taken several classes with me, and has asked me for letters of recommendation many times. Each time I have written him a positive letter. He is not one of the best students I’ve ever had, but he is a good writer and has other strengths that I have emphasized in the letters.
But last week he did something that took me by surprise. My class had an assignment that involved teaching a short lesson on a topic they are researching for their final project to students who live in a nearby underserved public school. This assignment was clearly on the syllabus from day 1, although it is not weighted heavily towards the final grade. Almost everyone in the class was excited about the project and put a lot of effort into it. But Joe did almost no preparation. When he showed me what he was planning to present, I realized he needed help and asked a more advanced student to assist him. He did not accept the help but instead told her that he resented the assignment, which he thought of as “working for free.” The more advanced student ended up taking over and doing almost the entire presentation herself. At the end of the presentation, I asked Joe in private why he had not done more of the teaching. He basically repeated what he had told my advanced student, saying that he had come to college to learn, not to be an unpaid instructor for someone else’s students.
Today he emailed to ask me for another letter of recommendation, this time for a civic-minded internship that involves working in the city. He did not address the incident in class, but simply said, “Since you’ve written for me before, I think you would be able to write me a good recommendation.”
I have not yet responded. I thought about declining and explaining why. But if I do that he will surely give me negative course evaluations. I am untenured, and course evaluations are weighted heavily at my college.
What should I do?
—Undecided in an Undisclosed Location
Dear U in a U,
I am appalled by your student’s behavior. You had made this requirement clear on the syllabus: his unilateral decision to virtually ignore it, for his own openly selfish reason, shows a total disregard for your authority and pedagogical methods. (Perhaps it has never occurred to the little snot that teaching, even teaching “underserved” kids, can be a learning experience, even for overserved kids.)
His conduct—or, at least, his assuming that he could get away with it—is also unfair to his fellow students, who did pitch in for that “unpaid work,” and especially to the advanced student who did his assignment for him.
Worst of all is his ungenerous, disrespectful attitude toward the students he was supposed to teach. He seems to have a healthy ego, so I assume he believed that a carefully-prepared lesson from him would have been of some value to them. But apparently he cared more about his own precious time than their well-being.
Course-evaluations and their repercussions aside, I believe that you should teach this kid a lesson, in both the kind and the not-so-kind senses of the term. Unless there has been some gross misunderstanding, Joe has plenty to learn about humility, community, and respect for others. No decent liberal arts college should let him graduate from it without at least trying to get through to him before unleashing him on the world. So yes, you should try to explain to him why his conduct was unacceptable and why he might, therefore, want to seek a recommendation elsewhere. It’s conceivable that he might have some explanation for his behavior that would make it more understandable, although I am hard pressed to come up with one. (Covering for scars and performance anxiety because of childhood bullying? Covering for being unprepared because of some recent family tragedy? Bizarre expression of solidarity with striking TAs?) Nor would I lay a heavy bet on his having some basic change of heart as a result of your explanations, or your declining to recommend him. But perhaps you could nudge his heart a little in the right direction, or at least let him know that—in some circles, anyway—entitled, selfish defiance can actually have consequences.
If I were you—and, again, course-evaluation and tenure issues aside—and if it is not already too late, I would also make sure that his grade reflects his handling of the teaching requirement, and explain why. I would certainly give him a very low grade for that one assignment; and if your school rules permit it I would lower his grade further for the separate offense of explicitly refusing to do assigned work on the syllabus, to the detriment of the class as a whole and the community. This seems to me a separate category from simply doing poor work, less serious but similar in some ways to plagiarism: if somebody brazenly and knowingly plagiarizes an assignment that only counts for 10% of the grade, this usually doesn’t—and certainly shouldn’t—mean that the grade simply gets lowered by 10%.
But you are worried about those course evaluations. Not having to survive in the meat-grinder of Academe myself, I do not want to pass judgment. I will say, though, that this strikes me as a very clear case, one where you should take a stand if you are ever going to: Joe flouted your authority, ignored the requirements of the syllabus, and behaved selfishly and without any sense of civic responsibility. Yet you have not even asked me about his grade, but only whether you should actually recommend him—not one of your best students in any case—for a “civic-minded” internship in the city when has already shown indifference, at best, to the type of community I assume he is being asked to serve.
I have to ask you: if course evaluations are so important to your institution, does anybody there ever give mediocre grades, or refuse to write a recommendation? Don’t the senior faculty and administration have any sense of how disgruntled students tend to react? And don’t they know how to discount outlier evaluations? Is there nobody you can talk to about the situation, for protection if not real guidance? But perhaps I am missing the point here by naively assuming that anyone in your department will care whether your course evaluations are fair and accurate, as opposed to whether they are likely to draw more applications and donations to your institution.
If you decide that it is just not worth the risk of antagonizing Joe by assessing him honestly and telling him why, this certainly does not speak well for your college. Again, I reserve judgment on how it reflects on you. Depending on circumstances I don’t know anything about, you may quite reasonably feel that you will be not only safer, but also more able to do good, by avoiding a confrontation here. I realize that I am dodging the specific question you asked me; but I hesitate to take a hard stance if there is a real risk that listening to me might jeopardize your job. I suspect that, in your place, I would decline Joe’s request and talk to him about it; but, then again, I am a tenured agony aunt and can say whatever I want with few if any repercussions.
If you do go ahead and write the recommendation, you will have to consider what to put in it. I wonder to what extent your agreeing to write a recommendation implies that you will write a glowing recommendation. I have found that, except in cases where recommendations from a particular person are mandatory (school guidance counselors, thesis advisors, direct supervisors), it is misleading to agree to serve as a reference or write a letter of recommendation for someone you do not, in fact, plan to recommend. But what about damning with faint praise? Given everything you have told me, I do not see any ethical problem with writing a recommendation that, while honest about Joe’s strengths, is less enthusiastic than your previous ones. In fact, I kind of hope you do. The city where he’s applying deserves no less. Besides, taking time out of your busy schedule, just so you can bend over backwards trying to make this kid look good, sounds like unpaid work to me.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
Image credit: Juan Ramos on Unsplash
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