When I was teaching middle school back in the 20th Century, I had a little project for my students that I stole from my own seventh grade English teacher. She had us write letters to ourselves. She told us that she would send them to us when we were seniors in high school. So, the idea was to write to the person you thought you would be in five years.

She never sent the letters when we were seniors. She left the junior high and probably tossed our letters. I seemed to be the only one who even remembered that we had written the letters. I can’t recall now anything I put in my letter. I wish I could. I wish we had gotten the letters.

When I was teaching, I decided I would try it and be sure to mail them. I asked students to supply a self-addressed envelope with two stamps on it (to cover postal increases) and the return address was me at the school.  I didn’t do it every year, but I got so many favorable responses for the years I did do it, that I regret not doing it every one of my 25 years teaching.

Of course, depending on how well the student composed the letter, it would have some impact to see your thoughts from five years earlier. Those years from 13 to 18 are big years of change.

I gave them a form to fill out too, asking them to list favorites (movies, TV, food, music) and best friends, goals, plans and such. They could also just write the letter. Some just did a quick scribble – and that is what they got back five years later.   I actually mailed envelopes to students who didn’t even do the assignment with a note reminding them of that – partially because I didn’t want them to blame me for losing their non-existent letter, and partly because that might have been a good message from their younger self too. I got a few interesting comments on those non-letters – mostly from students who wanted me to know that they had changed in a good way from the younger person.

I was reminded of this recently because one of my students who did a letter years ago became an English teacher herself and, via Facebook, I found out that Ines paid the letter forward.

In 7th grade, my language arts teacher had us write letters to our future selves. The week I graduated from high school, I was so surprised to receive a letter from…me! It was the letter I had written myself so many years earlier. I don’t remember now what I wrote but I remember loving the idea so I did it for some of my own students.

I just mailed all their letters that they wrote a couple of years ago. I hope they are as excited about receiving them, as I am in sending them.

I also had students write letter to famous people and amassed a pile of celebrity addresses and copies of the responses they received which I posted on the bulletin board. This was in the days before email and mostly in the pre-Internet days, so finding addresses and information required more difficult research than it would now.

It all seems rather quaint today, I suppose. But when my students received glossy 8×10 photos with actual autographs and real letters from the people they wrote to, it was exciting. Jaded as we are by online communication, I think all of us still get more excited by actual paper mail when it is something unexpected than we do by an online message.

And some of my students got unusual responses because they wrote clever letters or wrote to people who probably didn’t get tons of mail. there were autographed tennis balls, an Olympic swimmer’s cap, a few DVDs, signed copies of books, several hand drawn cartoons and comic book panels, and an animation cel. One student asked Donald Trump to autograph a crisp dollar bill so that it would be worth “more than a dollar.” He did. Another asked an author to record answers to her questions on the cassette tape she sent with the questions. She did. One boy asked a TV weatherman some questions about getting into the business and got a call from him at home. Many of my students wrote to the young adult authors that we read in class. We wrote letters to Juliet after we read Shakespeare’s play about her star-crossed love – and we got answers.

They learned a lot about how to write letters. And by that I don’t mean just the format. For example, they learned that writing to the biggest star of the top-rated TV show probably would only get you a small photo with a printed “autograph.” But a clever letter to a minor character or the writer or director of that same show might get you a personal response or more. The student who got tickets and an invitation to visit the Saturday Night Live show backstage didn’t ask for that – which is why he got it.

We learn how to communicate in many ways – both about the mediums to communicate and the forms those communications can take. The email, the Facebook message, the tweet, tagging someone in a photograph, the text message, the phone call, the note slipped into your locker or left on your desk in school or at the office, the card from the store and the handmade card, the poem, the mix CD of songs, the note with the flowers, the Post-It note left by the little gift on the kitchen table, the message put in your lunch bag and a letter sent from many miles – or many years – away.