This is a normal part of applying for advanced study, or a job. If you are respectful, polite, and humble, your teacher will be happy to help you. – The Internet
- Start by reminding them who you are, especially if some time has passed. This is particularly important if you were the mousy Chinese girl who never raised her hand in class.
- Describe the opportunity you seek. If it is, say, college or graduate school, talk about your intended field of study. Try to sound smart, but not intimidatingly so.
- If it is your 10th grade biology teacher Mr. Hicken, don’t mention the way he always looked directly at you when telling anecdotes about his tour of duty through Vietnam.
- Be confident but deferential.
- If it is your high school gym teacher Mr. Rossi, don’t bring up his habit of asking the girls “If I told you you had a nice body, would you hold it against me?” or the nickname he bestowed upon you one day during roll call, “Lotus Blossom.” Don’t bring up his serenading you with David Bowie’s “China Girl.”
- On second thought, do bring up the fact he called you “Lotus Blossom” since it is unlikely he will remember you by your actual name.
- Better still, don’t ask Mr. Rossi in the first place. I don’t know why you would even ask a gym teacher for a recommendation.
- If it is your 12th grade English teacher Miss Petrus, remember to inquire after her cats. Don’t remind her about the time she assigned The Good Earth and asked you to explain what a “concubine” was to the whole class. Or when she asked you to bring in a kimono, which you surely wore at home, for show-and-tell.
- Compliment her, ah, unfettered teaching style. Don’t mention the bewildering feeling you had in her class, one of being erased and reconstituted.
- Also don’t mention the talent show for which she was faculty advisor, in particular the skit where a thick-browed football player taped his eyelids back and pretended to host a game show called “The Rice is White.” Don’t mention how his ching chong English made the audience laugh and how you forced yourself to laugh too, uproariously, until your jaws felt like you’d been gnawing on a rope.
- Which leads me to this important point:
- Find opportunities for humor! Humor can be an effective way to win over others. However, don’t force it if you are not a humorous person, as you may achieve the opposite effect.
- If you are asking Professor Douglas (“Call me Jan, you hepcats”), who taught your American Lit seminar in college, it is imperative to remind her who you are. Be tactful in your approach.
- Don’t talk about how she confused you, repeatedly, with the Asian girl named Joyce in her other section. Don’t talk about how you were afraid to correct her until it was too late, because at that point it would only make her and you exceedingly uncomfortable.
- Don’t mention the bewildering feeling you had in her class, one of acute and involuntary solicitude for Professor Douglas.
- Also—it is not a good idea to mention how you resigned yourself to being Joyce for the whole semester and how you told yourself it was for the best because Professor Douglas seemed to like Joyce and Joyce was probably getting better grades than you.
- Upon reflection, it is not advisable to remind Professor Douglas who you are.
- Don’t mention the bewildering feeling you had in her class, one of taking up physical space while at the same time being completely invisible.
- Don’t talk about the meeting in which you proposed writing your senior thesis on The Woman Warrior and she responded with, “Hmm. Is that author American?” Don’t bring up the way she mangled Maxine Hong Kingston’s name to “Kong,” or the fact that Kong rhymes with ching chong.
- Don’t tell her how you tried to never be in the same room as Joyce. Don’t tell her how, when you and Joyce were in the ladies room and she walked in, you hid in a stall to keep Professor Douglas from seeing you were two discrete people and forcing upon her an existential crisis. How you hunched on the toilet, noiseless, until the ringing in your ears became a clanging alarm.
- Remember to maintain a self-effacing but friendly tone!
- It may be tempting to bring up old grievances, but these kinds of conversations are rarely satisfying for either party and can result in lasting professional consequences.
- Seriously, Doris. Don’t do it.
- Don’t mention the bewildering feeling you had in school, one of hiding inside your skin.
- Don’t describe the sensation of drifting in a submarine with a one-way mirror for a porthole (the echo, the depth of dark pressure). Don’t try to explain the strange desolation of looking at your teachers in this mirror, through which they could see nothing of you but which allowed you to see them—see into them—with absolute—
- What I mean to say is—
- What did I tell you about being deferential and self-effacing?
- Tell them how much you enjoyed their class. Tell them how much you learned, the ways you’ve been changed, et cetera. Be specific. Teachers love to know that they’ve made a difference in a student’s life.
“How to Ask Your White Teacher for a Letter of Recommendation” by Doris W. Cheng appeared in Issue 40 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Doris W. Cheng is a Taiwanese American fiction writer who writes frequently about family, race, immigration, and identity. She received an MA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University and teaches fiction and poetry in New York and New Jersey. Her stories are forthcoming or have appeared in Witness, The Normal School, The Cincinnati Review, The Pinch, New Delta Review, TSR: The Southampton Review Online, CALYX Journal, and other literary publications.