At first the letter seems like a pleasant little missive from a daughter who recently entered college: "Dear Mom and Dad, I have been remiss in writing, so I will bring you up to date on all my activities."
But before continuing, the daughter's letter cautions, "You are not to read any further unless you are sitting down, OK?"Then the first bombshell explodes:
"I am getting along pretty well now. The skull fracture and concussion I got jumping out of the window of my dormitory when it caught fire are pretty well healed. I spent two weeks in the hospital and now I can see almost normally and only get those sick headaches once a day."
The letter goes on to explain that, since her dorm was destroyed, she has moved into an apartment with a gas-station attendant who lives nearby and they're soon to be married.
"We haven't set the exact date," she writes, "but it will be before my pregnancy begins to show."
Does this bad-news letter sound familiar? If not, it should, since anonymous photocopies of it, with some variations, have been circulating for at least 20 years.
During the late 1960s copies of the letter often began with references to the dormitory fire being set during a campus demonstration, but lately this detail seldom appears.
"The College Girl's Letter Home," as folklorists call this item, sums up every parent's worst fears about what might happen when a daughter goes off to college. But it is more than likely that no real-life parents have ever received this catalog of disasters, except perhaps as a joke.
It's merely a piece of typed and duplicated folklore - often titled "Perspective" - that capitalizes on parents' anxieties and on students' mischievously clever knack of knowing exactly what will capture their elders' attention.
In typical versions of this letter, things get worse before they get better. The next bit of news is usually that the new fiance "has some minor infection that prevents him from passing our premarital blood tests and I carelessly caught it from him."
There's not much doubt that the infection is a venereal disease, since the letter next says, "This will soon clear up with the penicillin injections I am now taking daily."
I wouldn't be surprised if updated versions of the letter will eventually mention AIDS.
Here's another detail about the nice young man that the daughter provides: "He's of a different race and religion than ours, but I'm sure you will love him as much as I do."
Since I already told you that this letter is folklore and also that it's titled "Perspective," it shouldn't be hard to guess at what the last paragraph reveals. In a typical version:
"There was no dormitory fire; I did not have a concussion or a skull fracture; I was not in the hospital; I am not pregnant; I am not engaged. I do not have syphilis and there is no boyfriend in my life. However, I am getting a D in history and an F in science and I wanted you to see these grades in the proper perspective."
Other versions of the letter provide slightly different details, but all of them follow the same general formula, reporting a fire, injuries, pregnancy, illness and a boyfriend who is not likely to win the hearts of most white, middle-class moms and dads.
Sometimes there is also an ironic reference to one of a parent's dearest wishes: "You always wanted a grandchild, so you will be glad to know that you will be grandparents next month."
The two low grades reported are always D and F, but occasionally they are received in other subjects, such as French, chemistry or sociology.
It's too bad the student wasn't taking a folklore class. Then she could have collected some variant versions of "Perspective," analyzed their meanings and functions and probably have received at least a B in the course.