In April 2020, I wrote a letter to myself.
This was an assignment that years ago I would sometimes give to my middle school students. They were 12-14 years old and letter writing was an assignment we did in several forms. For this assignment, I gave them a fill-in-the-blank form that asked them a number of questions including: who are their best friends, favorites (movies, TV shows, books, places to visit, foods etc.) and I asked them about what they hoped or expected for their near future. It asked them what they wanted to happen in high school academically and socially. Did they have college plans, or career plans? They also wrote a letter to themself. Though I gave suggestions, that part was open-ended.
What made this assignment ultimately significant was what I did with their form and letter. I told them I would only glance at it at their desk to see that it was done but I would not read it. They also had to bring in a self-addressed stamped envelope that the two sheets would be put in ready to mail.
I would mail them their letter on the first day of June of their senior year. So, in 4 or 5 years this most-likely-forgotten assignment would arrive at their home.
I knew from teaching high school seniors that a strong wave of nostalgia hits when June begins. Seniors tended to be nicer to each other. They talked about final things. This is my last: math test, cafeteria lunch, homeroom, pep rally, detention and so on.
The first year I mailed a set of those letters (about 125 of them), it only took a day or two for seniors to come back to their middle school to show them to me and tell how it felt to read them. “I changed so much! I totally forgot about this assignment. My predictions were so wrong. I laughed to read this. I cried when I read this. It made me so happy. It made me sad. I can’t believe you remembered to mail them!”
Luckily, no one had moved so the letters arrived. (I had them put on two stamps since this was a time before the “Forever stamp”). And none of those students had died in the interim. That was something that did happen the second time I did this assignment. I knew that and had pulled the letter which I delivered to the student’s parents in person. They were grateful for it, but I never heard from them about what they found in the envelope or if it was a good or bad thing for them to read.
Every time I mailed a batch of letters, I would get a few students who came back to complain that they never got their letter. Thankfully, I had kept a roster and next to their names I had them sign that they did not turn in the assignment. Instead of being mad at me, they were usually mad at themselves, but no letter was also a kind of unwritten letter from their younger self.
I was reminded of this years ago when one of my students who did a letter years ago became an English teacher herself. Via Facebook, I found out that Ines paid the letter assignment forward. She wrote “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.”
When I wrote my letter last year, I considered doing an email and using the Boomerang app in my Gmail to schedule it to send one year later. I decided not to for several reasons. First off, that meant that the email would be sitting there tempting me for a year. I could even revise it. But I didn’t have a nice teacher who would snail mail it to me in April 2021. I finally decided to write it, put it in an envelope, seal it and just put it away out of my sight and set a reminder on my electronic calendar about where it was “hiding” and to open it this month.
Writing a letter by hand on paper and putting it in an envelope might seem quaint to teens today having grown up in an almost fully-digital world. But I suspect people of all ages still get a little charge of excitement at getting a real letter or a greeting card in their home mailbox that exceeds the “Happy Birthday” post on their Facebook wall or the text message update.
One year is not four or five years, and I’m not a young teen heading into some years full of change. Still, April 2020 to April 2021 was a big year of change for myself, the country, and the world.
I wrote the letter on April 14, 2020. In the two weeks prior, we had seen a $2 trillion stimulus bill passed. The world hit one million COVID cases. There were 51,000 deaths by April 2 and by the 9th the number was 100,000. The WHO and CDC were telling us to wear masks, but President Trump would not and many of his supporters followed his example. The day I wrote my letter, President Trump blamed the WHO and pulled funding from the U.S. to the organization. It was a depressing day to write a letter but I knew this was a history I didn’t want to forget.
I also knew that my first grandchild would be born in a few days. My son was concerned that they said he probably couldn’t be in the hospital for the birth.
Spring flowers were blooming in my neighborhood but spring was not as hopeful as in previous years. My sister was living in an assisted-living facility that had already had COVID cases and deaths and I was not allowed to visit her. There was talk of vaccines but that would be about nine months away despite claims from the false claim from the White House and some news sources that the virus would “go away when it got warmer” and that the number and reports of cases were exaggerated. At one point, the Presidents had said it would subside by Easter. But Passover and Easter were largely virtual events and things had only gotten worse.
Like my students’ letters, I wrote about what was happening then and what I hoped for in the next year. I won’t share my letter but you can guess correctly at some of it. I hoped the pandemic would subside and that no one I knew would get the virus and that none of that did would die. I hoped the vaccine would appear. I hoped that Trump would be a one-term President and that Biden would right the ship of state. My biggest piece of optimism was for my granddaughter.
Some of my predictions and wishes came true. Some did not.
Certainly, the birth of our Remi was the best thing to happen in the past year. My son was able to be in the room for her birth and isolated, masked, and sanitized, they left the hospital 24 hours after they went entered.
No one I am close to died from the virus but a good number of friends, relatives and acquaintances have tested positive and a few were hospitalized.
The pandemic continues to dominate the news. Things are better but the virus is certainly not gone. Travel plans we made for summer 2020 that we moved to 2021 are moved to 2022. My high school reunion that I am on the planning committee for moved our October 2021 event to October 2022.
Maybe things will be close to normal by the fall, but no one really knows.
I still haven’t seen my sister except through a window. My wife and I have been vaccinated but we still wear masks and we still stay pretty close to home. Tomorrow is Remi’s first birthday.
Maybe I should write another letter to myself. Maybe I should make it an annual assignment. Maybe you should write one too.