P.S. Write Back Soon…
The only items to arrive in my mailbox these days are from companies to whom we owe money and companies who wish to lend us money. Of course, there are also coupons and catalogs, in case we have run out of ideas regarding how to spend our money. Very occasionally we will receive an invitation to a wedding or a thank you note for a gift we sent, but even those are starting to arrive via email. Some days I don’t even get the mail. I leave the task of sifting through junk mail and bills to my husband.
As a teenager, getting the mail was my favorite daily task. The anticipation of finding out if someone had written me a letter was almost unbearable. I took great pains to increase my chances of getting a letter which means I, myself, wrote and mailed a lot of letters. My high school years were a revolving mailbox of letters to celebrity fan clubs and pen pals, not to mention the countless chain letters that I sent out to avoid bad luck.
I found many of my pen pals in the back pages of those teeny bopper celebrity magazines. Kids would place ads listing their hobbies, favorite bands, TV shows, and celebrity crushes, along with a photo, and an address. I would pick folks with similar interests and we would exchange enthusiastic letters of very serious subject matter (such as which member of ‘New Kids on The Block’ we would most like to date) and debating the important issues of the day (i.e. Corey Feldman vs. Corey Haim). Most of these pen pal relationships were short lived (apparently it takes more than a shared adoration of Joey McIntyre’s very blue eyes to build a real friendship) but with a couple of pen pals the letter writing went on for years and real friendships were forged.
My good friend, Ronnie, was even more obsessed with letter writing than I was. Occasionally, when she was overwhelmed with the number of letters she had to respond to, she would toss a couple of letters my way, and I would take over her pen pal responsibilities. That is how I began writing to Sam, my favorite of all of my teenage pen pals.
He lived in Northern California and despite being the same age, our lives were very different. Sam and I spent most of my high school years writing long letters comparing our lives on opposite coasts. I read all about Sam’s trials and tribulations in his world of playing high school football and dating cheerleaders (which was not as easy as I assumed it might be) and I wrote him endless narratives about what was happening in my geeky world of yearbook editing and jazz choir rehearsals. We shared stories about our parents who just didn’t understand what it was like to be a teenager and were equally perplexed about what the future held in store.
If Sam and I had gone to the same high school, we probably would have never spoken- it would have gone against the rules of high school social order. But with 3,000 miles between us we were free to ask each other questions, share ideas, and confide secrets. Sam and I became close enough friends that he flew out from California to attend my high school graduation.
For a long time I kept all of the letters I had received from Sam (and from all of my other pen pals) in a shoebox, which then overflowed to a second shoebox, and then a third. I have weeded them out over the years but I hung on to my favorites which I still re-read on occasion. There is something about pulling out and re-reading an old letter that has special meaning that allows me to re-live a moment in time and feel like I am once again there with that person.
In the eleventh grade I had an amazing American History teacher. I had heard rumors that he was tough as nails and that he would lock tardy students out of the classroom and deny them entry to class. I was terrified of him before going into that class, but I ended up having one of the most powerful learning experiences of my high school career. My senior year I signed up for two more classes with this teacher and before graduation I wrote him a letter telling him how influential he had been to me and how grateful I felt to have had him as a teacher. The teacher wrote back to me, thanking me for taking the time to put my thoughts into writing so that he could re-read the letter any time he had a “bad” teaching day and needed a reminder of why he went into teaching in the first place. I didn’t keep in touch with this teacher after graduation, but I have kept the letter he wrote back to me, and it reminds me of the importance of expressing my gratitude to those people who have made a difference in my life.
I grew up in a world without text messaging. Email did not become a part of my life until college. Nobody had cell phones. If I wanted to get a message to a friend during the school day, I had to write them a note and pass it to them in the hallway or cram it through the slats in their locker. Some of these notes were pages and pages long (and written when we should have been paying attention in class) and contained our joys and worries- both frivolous and deep. The first boy to tell me that he liked me did so through one of these passed notes. Sometimes, my friends would argue quite intensely via notes passed in the hallway.
People do the same thing now, through text, email, and social media websites- but I don’t think it’s the same. Email, texting, and social media require us to be brief and it can be very hard to gage tone or intent. When I write an email I constantly question- have I written enough to be clear? Have I over- shared? When I sit down to write an actual letter (you know, with a pen and paper) I feel free to actually say what it is I want to say. Instead of writing from my head, I write from my heart. It is a chance to communicate without feeling pressured to be concise, or without worrying if my intentions are clear. There is something personal and intimate about a hand written letter as opposed to an email which can be forwarded and shared with the click of a mouse.
I haven’t received a real letter in a long time, but I know if I found one in my mailbox I would feel great knowing that someone had taken the time to sit down and write to me. Technology has enabled us to communicate more efficiently and in real time. But nothing has replaced the letters I used to receive and I miss them. Emails may come with documents attached, but letters come with emotions attached- joy, sadness, excitement, closure- and that is what makes them so special.
I would like to start a letter writing campaign- in support of letter writing. I want to invite each of you to take a half hour and sit down to hand write a letter to someone important to you. Make it a letter they will be happy to receive- one they can pull out time and time again when they are in need of a lift. Maybe tell somebody something that you’ve been meaning to tell them for a long time. If you were to sit and write that letter, who would be the recipient? What would you tell them? What are you waiting for?