Posts Tagged ‘Snail Mail’

In Lee Smith’s tribute to Flannery O’Connor, she wrote of the transformation she experienced as a college student when she read O’Connor’s fiction for the first time. I thought of those words of Smith’s—and of the words of O’Connor’s that inspired them—when I received a gift from a woman who was a student of mine more than a decade ago. Last Saturday I was working at my desk when the mail carrier dropped the package on the porch. What I found inside was a picture of O’Connor in a gold-colored peacock frame, the bird wreathing O’Connor as her own pet peacocks had circled the writer on her farm, Andalusia, where she lived the last years of her short life.

Along with the framed picture, the student enclosed a note with these words: “I think of you often. Thanks for changing my entire academic life by introducing me to the amazing Southern women writers!”

Those writers included Smith, whose whole notion of the short story was upended when she read O’Connor for the first time. In Smith’s words:

[S]omehow I had got the idea that a short story should follow a kind of recipe, like a Lady Baltimore cake. Conflict, suspense, resolution; a clear theme; an ending that tied it all up in a neat little bow. Yet when I read that famous last line of  “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I realized that nothing was wrapped up here—instead, a whole world opened out before my astonished eyes, a world as wild and scary as life, itself. (19)

A world opened before my eyes, too, when I first read O’Connor and Smith. And for me as a teacher, there is no greater honor than the opportunity to witness whole worlds open before my students’ eyes as they read those writers for the first time.

And Aine, what can I write of your expression of thanks? That it’s as exhilarating and astonishing as the words of those writers. Thank you!

Smith, Lee. “Revelation.” Flannery O’Connor: In Celebration of Genius, edited by Sarah Gordon, Hill Street, 2000. 19-20.


Even if I’d lived at my current address longer than five months, it would’ve been unusual to open my mailbox to find what was there on Saturday: a handwritten letter from a former student. I often hear from former students online, but handwritten snail mail: that’s a rarity. I cradled the envelope with the care I’d give any other endangered species.

Though I know that most of my students won’t compose handwritten letters after they leave my classroom, it’s an assignment I still require to supplement their writing practice. I don’t read the letters I ask them to write; I simply require them to submit letters mail-ready, in addressed stamped envelopes. I credit the students with the act of composing–not with what they write or to whom. Some students think it’s a pointless exercise; others ask if it’s okay to submit more than one letter. (It’s okay–no, it’s more than okay.)

I started the practice nearly fifteen years ago when I was teaching at Salem College. At the end of that school year, I received a note from a student’s mother, thanking me for the written account of her daughter’s freshman year–something she wouldn’t have had, she said, if not for all that required letter-writing.

Not all students write to their families, but many do. One of my students at VCU reported that the letters he’d written home were all posted on the door of the refrigerator. Earlier this month when my students at Lenoir-Rhyne submitted their last letters of the semester, one student handed me a stack of envelopes, each addressed to one of the teachers at her high school. At the end of her first semester of college, she was writing to say thank you.

Envelope November 2011I don’t write much snail mail, myself, though I do write a letter once a month along with my Envelope April 2013students.  And Monday I wrote back to my former student–the one whose letter arrived on Saturday.  I should write more letters, considering how much some of the ones I’ve received have meant to me. A note from one of my teachers five months before her death and one from another teacher–still very much alive and well–encouraging me to continue my writing, are ones I keep in my briefcase. Having them there makes me feel as if the women who wrote them are walking with me into the classroom. And in a sense they are–their words invigorate my teaching.

Sometimes at the end of a difficult day, I pull one from my briefcase and reread it.

The letter that I received from my student on Saturday is one I’ll carry with me as well. In it, she writes (I quote with her permission):

This semester, I took UNIV 200 in which I wrote a 15-page research paper on the importance of handwritten letters when compared to email messages. I had a great experience researching articles and now have the confidence to write a lengthy paper.

I hope your first semester at your new teaching institution has been great. Have a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Thanks, Esther. Your handwritten words have made the season brighter.