Posts Tagged ‘Snail Mail’

Dear Readers, Deserving Strangers

Posted: December 2, 2019 in Teaching, Writing
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More than twenty years ago, in August of 1997, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition featured a story about Nancy Johnson, a second- and third-grade teacher who gave her students the assignment of writing letters to themselves, letters that covered such details as “their favorite toys, what makes them different from other kids and what they want to do in the future” (Morning par. 1). Johnson collected the letters and mailed them back to her pupils at the end of their senior year of high school. As I pictured Nancy Johnson’s eighteen-year-old students reading the words written by their seven- and eight-year-old selves, I began wondering how I might create a similar letter-writing experience for my college students. Following Johnson’s model wouldn’t be practical. My students’ addresses would change repeatedly throughout their twenties; I doubted that many of their letters would find their way back to them. Rather than requiring pieces of writing that might end up at the dead letter office, I crafted an alternate assignment. I required my students to write to themselves at the beginning of the semester, and I returned their letters to them on the last day of class.

Eventually I revised that assignment. Instead of requiring students to write letters to themselves, I required them to write snail mail. After I moved from Winston-Salem to Richmond, I shelved the letter-writing assignment for a while because of the increased emphasis on technology in the curriculum. But after a few years at Virginia Commonwealth University, I resurrected the assignment. I’d been meditating on how submitting assignments electronically—as students were and are with greater frequency—did not require the degree of preparedness that paper submissions demand. Around the time I began requiring both paper and digital copies of my students’ revised essays, I also began requiring them to submit mail-ready letters (addressed, stamped, and sealed) at the beginning of class once a month. Students’ initial reactions to the assignment have always been mixed. Many wonder why anyone would bother to put pen to paper when texting is far more efficient.

Whether students are resistant to snail mail or embrace its old-school charm, they are often surprised to discover how much the recipients appreciate their letters, which is another way of demonstrating how much their written words can matter. Back when I was completing my last semester of teaching at Salem College, one of my students told me that her mother wanted to thank me for requiring my students to write monthly letters. She had a record of her daughter’s first year of college that she wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t required her daughter and her classmates to write letters. Just as that mother was grateful for that written account of her daughter’s first months of college, many recipients of my students’ letters are undoubtedly grateful to find letters in their mailboxes, but over the years fewer and fewer of my students have received snail mail in return. Instead, they find a word of thanks in an email or a text message.

I was thinking about that last spring—how few of my students receive snail mail and how I wished more of them received replies—when it occurred to me that retirement communities offered potential pen pals—people who might not only welcome snail mail from college students but who might also write them back.  Margaret Shepherd, author of The Art of the Handwritten Note, recommends that if you don’t know whom to write snail mail to, “reach out to deserving strangers” (qtd. in Shain par. 22). With that in mind, I phoned the activities director at Abernethy Laurels, a nearby retirement community, and made a proposal: If my students wrote letters to potential pen pals there, would she provide the residents with an opportunity to write back? The activities director liked the idea but expressed concern about the residents’ privacy. What if the students addressed the letters to “Dear Reader” and I mailed them all in one large envelope? I asked. I suggested that she could send the replies the same way; the residents wouldn’t have to include their last names.

We ended our phone conversation with the promise to finalize our plans late in the summer. That’s when I would be able to tell her approximately how many students would be writing letters to her residents—or at least I thought I would. Instead, my teaching schedule changed twice in the days leading up to the beginning of the semester. Rather than teaching two sections of English 111, I would teach three, two of which were flex-start classes: ones that begin two weeks into the semester (and run for one hour and thirty-six minutes rather than one hour and twenty). One of the two flex-start sections would begin the Thursday before Labor Day; the other would start the following Wednesday.

Teaching two flex-start classes meant my students would compose their letters later in September than I’d planned, and the activities director would receive more letters than she anticipated. When the students composed their letters in class, some asked when they would receive a reply. I could only tell them, I don’t know when you will, or if you will. After a month passed and I hadn’t heard from Abernethy Laurels, it occurred to me that the activities director may have been overwhelmed by the number of letters she received, forty-one in all. And what if the residents didn’t want to write back? Or what if some wanted to reply, but couldn’t? I imagined the activities director transcribing letter after letter for residents with arthritic hands. If I had given her a formidable task, I didn’t want her to feel compelled to complete it. If I phoned or emailed to request an update, I might put her in an awkward position. So I waited until the first week of November to email her. She replied that the residents had responded to thirty-five of the letters and would soon complete responses to the remaining six.

Less than a week later, I received an envelope containing forty-one letters, one for each of the students who had written to a potential pen pal at Abernethy Laurels. How can I describe the feeling of beginning class the next morning with mail call, of handing students pieces of writing that weren’t assignments annotated with my ink but words of introduction from potential pen pals, people with whom they may correspond for years to come? As the students read their letters, their eyes lit up. Occasionally a student would stop and read a line aloud. That’s all I know of the contents of those letters. That’s all I need to know. I could read the gratitude in their faces. I didn’t need to read the words on the page to know that it’s an assignment worth repeating.

Works Cited

“3rd Grade Letters/Revisited.” Morning Edition. 28 Aug. 1997. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1027990. Accessed 1 December 2019.

Shain, Susan. “We Could All Use a Little Snail Mail Right Now.” The New York Times. 8. Oct. 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/08/smarter-living/we-could-all-use-a-little-snail-mail-right-now.html. Accessed 1 Dec. 2019.

 

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.

Envelope

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.