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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 12, 2006

File thoughtful letter to those you love

By Michael C. DeMattos

I spend much of January writing reference letters for students applying to graduate school.

It is a springtime ritual that I love and loathe. I love it because I know that as social workers in the community, they are going to lead a professional life committed to social justice and change. I loathe the reference letters because they pile up.

While each student is unique, finding new and innovative ways to discuss their strengths is not easy.

Last week, as I closed in on the final letter, I could hear my daughter feeding the dogs; the familiar sound of kibble spilling into a metal bowl trumped by the dogs' tails wagging against the kitchen cabinets. I peered out from my office door, careful not to be noticed.

As my daughter led the dogs outside, my wife made lunches for the next day.

What would I say if asked to write a reference letter for my wife or for my daughter?

One thing I know is that I'm far from qualified to judge either one. I also know that saying "I love you" is likely not enough. Love is a complex feeling that merits all the attention it receives in song and print, but sometimes people need to know that who they are and what they do is valued.

If I wrote a reference letter for my daughter I would tell her that I am impressed by the way she pours herself into a project.

Her tongue sticks out the corner of her mouth and her brows furrow. The only thing missing is smoke coming out of her ears.

For our shepherd's first birthday, my daughter was determined to throw him a party. She decorated the house in streamers, created handmade invitations, baked a cake under mom's supervision and selected music to set the mood.

There were only four of us there my wife, daughter, the dog and myself but it was one of the best parties I've ever attended.

A reference letter for my wife would be more challenging.

Where to start?

Men may not like hearing this, but I believe women generally do more than we do. My wife is no exception.

The trait I appreciate most about her is that she inspires loyalty in those who've worked for her and in our family. She is a leader not by words but by example.

Each spring I participate in a ritual unique to faculty across the globe writing reference letters for my students. Somewhere along the line, someone has told them and me that my opinion matters. I've never written a reference letter for any of my family or friends. But I think it's time my family heard how much this teacher has learned from each of them.

I'm sure we all have folks in our lives who could use a reference letter right about now. They may not be seeking a job but would like to hear the skills they have are valued. And to know that if given a choice, you would choose them. Again.

Michael C. DeMattos is on the faculty at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa School of Social Work. He lives in Kane'ohe with his wife, daughter and two dogs.