just one change

The truism among writers is that if your writing touches “just one life” then it’s all worthwhile. I question that: I’d like to touch more than just one life, but I’ve heard from individuals who have read Emily Rose’s story that they’ve been changed or made decisions because of her story. And there was one baby named after a character in Seven Archangels: Annihilation and one baby nearly named after a character in The Guardian. I would count that as changing someone’s life.

On Monday or Tuesday night (I forget which) I came across a post in my parenting board. A woman there had a friend whose son had been rejected from his top choice college, and she wanted someone to help edit an appeal letter. The poster was warned that appeal letters never work, and she said, “But at least he has to try.”

I think she wanted proofreading, but I got one look at this letter and went to work on it. I’d been editing letters at QueryTracker for the past few days anyhow, and I slipped into that mode.

I put it in business letter format. I found the name of the director of admissions and directed it to him rather than “Dear Admissions”. I reworked the letter. I suggested deleting certain parts and emphasizing others.

Mostly, I tried to turn the letter into more of a story than it was, to give it a shape. The story was already there, but I tried to make it so everything but the happy ending (“and then he got into the college of his choice”) was in place, and then they could fill it with “Of course you can come to our fine institution.”

The upshot? We don’t know what version of the letter he used, but the admissions board reversed their decision, and he was admitted.

Did I have anything to do with that? Obviously his grades and such were the key. But did I help? And if the answer is yes, then this is how we “change just one life,” one at a time.

How does it balance? Because I’ve been blessed with things I could never possibly deserve, say, ten million units of “good” in that I was given the inclination to write, and I was given an education, and I live in the internet age, and so on. I used, maybe, one unit of good to help this kid. It couldn’t have taken more than twenty minutes. But for him it’s four years in college, and with that he’s received his own million units of “good.” If I was a part of this windfall, it happened not because I did anything extraordinary, because I didn’t. It was just something I could do. God put us together, and I’m in awe.

The woman who passed the message along didn’t have to help, either. We were all in a chain to help this young man, and maybe it was God or Fate, to help spread the blessings around. But it’s very good, and I’m so glad for this guy, now college-bound.


  1. Illya

    I love feel good stories and this is one. If we all used our talents in the service of others as Jane did here, we ourselves would be happier and the world would be a better place. Besides, as she points out, it makes us much more aware of the talents and gifts God has bestowed on us out of His graciousness. And we realize that with the talents comes a responsibility to use those talents as best we can. A job well done, Jane

    1. philangelus

      Ivy says there’s enough to go around. We just need to distribute what we have.

      The young man’s story was, in essence, that a teacher had sat him down and said, “If you don’t get your act together, you’re not going to get into college,” and the kid then pulled it together. The biggest change I made to the letter was in making it totally clear (closing the circle, so to speak) that he wanted to be *just like the teacher who helped him,* that the teacher had not only inspired him to work to his potential, but also that he wanted to become like this teacher in order to help other young men who might otherwise fritter away their chance to go to college.

      Obviously the work was all his, but if the letter got the college to give him a second look…that’s huge. That’s just huge.

  2. cricketB

    That’s the sort of teacher I want for my kid — someone who has some life experience and knows how hard it is to pull it together. Unfortunately, it’s also the sort of applicant that doesn’t always get through first, marks-only, pass of the admissions committee. It looks like he’s going to be able to pass on those millions.

  3. Ivy

    Doesn’t this bump some other student who would otherwise have been accepted purely on his grades and academics though? They don’t have unlimited slots.

    1. philangelus

      I assume the admissions folks know how many slots there are and how many students they have already admitted.

      1. Ivy

        Right, but there is some student who only followed the rules and would otherwise have been accepted who wasn’t because the school is scared of the negative PR that can be caused in this climate by a squeaky wheel. If they can take, say 40,000 students, this won’t be 40,001.

        I’m too much of a rules follower, I think. I need to stop that.

        1. Ivy

          And I just myself into trouble for refusing to help a client commit fraud. Like I said, I gotta stop following the rules this obsessively.

        2. cricketB

          Ah, but the rules probably aren’t “just marks”. I hope they aren’t, since I’ve had many good teachers who were average students.

          I don’t think they’d be worried about the publicity. If anything, they’d worry the other way.

          It might have been a quota thing. My school accepted a certain number of foreign students, who were evaluated against each other, not against the routine domestic applicants. Likewise for mature students, who were assumed to have learned study skills since high school and to have valuable work experience and more drive. The mature students in my class didn’t all survive first term (nor did those who got in the usual way — class size dropped by a fifth), but those who did were solid students and well-rounded people, better rounded than most of the rest of us.

    2. cricketB

      This would be for second round admissions, after the first batch they invited have replied. It wouldn’t bump a student who’s already been accepted.

      Yes, it would mean that a second round candidate with grades and academics but not as interesting a life story would not be accepted. Marks in high school aren’t a perfect indication of how well they’ll do the job when they graduate, or even how well they’ll adapt to university-style learning. In my program, there was an 8-page application form. They accepted one batch on marks alone, but there’s a range of marks where the application form makes a difference. His application, including non-academics, was probably just below the cut-off. If they underestimated how many of the first batch of invitations would be accepted, they’d have extra space.

      One friend was called two weeks before start of term. He was 20th on the waiting list for law school, should they keep him on it? Three days before start of term he was told to be there on Monday.