One of my favorite things to do is write letters. Maybe you've noticed? I write response letters to all of my students, but I also like to keep in touch with other people through old-fashioned letter writing. I don’t care if most people use email or social media now, I think an old-school, handwritten letter is still one of the coolest things to send and receive. It’s exciting to open the mailbox and find words from a person you care about. Right now I have two former student pen pals for two very different reasons.
My first pen pal is Ava. She was my student for two years, and at the end of her 8th grade year she moved to Hawaii. Since that meant she wouldn’t be able to stop by and visit me, we made a deal: if she wrote the first letter, I would write back. And I’d keep writing back until she stopped sending me letters. We’ve been corresponding through snail mail since last June. My favorite thing about exchanging letters with Ava is that we both like to draw goofy cartoons along with what we’re writing, to try to make each other laugh. I miss her dearly, but those monthly letters are a way to keep our relationship going through years and distance.
I have a new pen pal as of this week, and it's vital to me to keep this one going. One of my students was expelled last week. I sent her a letter so she would know I still care about her, that everyone makes mistakes in life, we just have to work harder to get past the big ones. I didn’t want her to think that everyone in her life had abandoned her or was disappointed because of one screw up, and it was imperative for me to get that letter in her hands. Honestly, I didn’t know if she would even write me back, but she did, and she asked if we could keep writing letters to each other to stay in touch. It was one of those rare perfect moments when best intentions met with desired results. My letter was the lifeline she needed at that moment in time.
While Ava's letters fill me with smiles and laughter, these letters from my new pen pal make the air catch in my throat. I want there to be forgiveness and exceptions for students, even when they make big mistakes, even when I know the district had no choice but to discipline her.
I have no control whether this student is allowed to come back to my district next year, or whether she'll be lost to me forever. I don't have control over whether she continues down the path she's started on that resulted in the expulsion. The only control I have in this situation is letting this girl know every week how much I love and care about her, and that I believe in her ability to turn things around.
I sobbed at the dining room table the night I'd found out she'd been expelled, telling my husband that she was a kid I thought I could make a difference with, and I didn't know if I'd ever see her again. Through letters, I now have that chance. I know I can't save every kid who needs it, but I will do everything I can for this girl. I want that big hug as much as she does.
Letters are one of our most powerful forms of communication. Find someone who needs one, and send it.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.