When I was 24, I taught summer school.
My then-husband taught at a private school in the Bay Area, and they needed a pinch hitter. Because I had an undergraduate degree in English/Creative Writing and a decent amount of what was likely hubris, the school hired me.
I was given two sections of 7th and 8th grade literature, a dusty curriculum, and a classroom. Even at the time, I kept laughing in small bursts, while alone. They were trusting me to convey information to young people. It was borderline preposterous.
By some stroke of luck, the two pieces of literature in the curriculum were ones I was familiar with. The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell, and the great American comedy by Kaufman and Hart, You Can’t Take it With You. I had really liked Connell’s short story when I had been forced to read it – the idea of a human hunting another human sort of rang with justice (I was a fierce animal rights advocate in middle school and abhorred the hunting of animals), and I had done a production of Kaufman and Hart’s play in college. So, you know, I was an expert.
Luckily, my students knew way less than me. All they knew was that I was their teacher, an adult, and therefore, old.
Unlike a lot of summer schools, these kids were actually there because they wanted to get ahead. The area we lived in was full of wealthy, academically rigorous families who wanted their kids to be shoe-ins for the Ivys. So on the first day, the students filed in with the appropriate amount of doleful on their faces, but they were also very smart.
Suddenly, I realized this was an opportunity.
Let me be clear – there was no standing on the desks, carpe diem, no standing and delivering. But what I realized I had was a relative amount of freedom. Unlike a regular teacher, I wasn’t teaching for a evaluative skills test. At the very least, these students just had to read a single piece of writing and somewhat digest it. How they digested was completely up to me.
So we had some fun. We read the short story, we read the play, we discussed, they made their own versions of The Most Dangerous Board Game, and I had each class create a class magazine and fill it with features, interviews, news articles, games, and anything they thought was important. And then, on the last day of class, I had them write a letter.
When I was 12, I wrote a letter to myself at 24. I wish it had been my own idea, but I had read some book and gotten the inspiration. Anyway, the idea had sort of blown me away, so I got out my calligraphy pen and some parchment paper (I was a weird, but funny kid. We would have been friends.) and wrote a multi-page epistle to myself, full of questions and predicaments and ramblings. Then I sealed it up, scrolled “To Myself at 24″ on the envelope, and tucked it away.
Amazingly enough, I managed to save the letter, smuggle it through high school, transport it through college, move across country with it – twice – and store it in various apartments. Earlier that year, I had opened it.
So here they were, this pack of 12-year-olds, and they were almost done with summer school, and I felt like we knew each other well enough that I could force them to do this.
“Okay!” I said, and I may have clapped my hands. “Get out a piece of paper and a writing utensil (Yes, I may have said this. I’m not proud). I want you to write a letter to yourself at 24.”
15 pairs of non-blinking eyes.
I yammered an explanation, and amazingly, they started to write. The room was quiet, with the occasional question and the muttering, This is weird. I don’t know what to write. To myself??
I had them fold the letter, staple it shut, and write their address on the outside. Then I collected them and made the rash promise, “I’ll keep these for the next 12 years and mail them to these addresses when it’s time.” The students looked at me incredulously. This was my hippie moment. I must have seemed insane.
About a month ago, I remembered the letters. I knew exactly where they were. I took them out and yowled. I was a little late mailing them, but come on – these letters had been on a much more elaborate odyssey than my own. That I still had them was miraculous.
So I typed out a missive, starting over a few times. What a strange letter to write. I barely got to know those kids, and I was sending them a piece of their pasts. My main hope was that the letters would reach them. I tucked in a copy with each, and sent them off to the addresses written on the outside.
I’ve heard from four students so far. Each was stunned to receive his or her letter. All had forgotten they’d written them. And all were moved by their 12-year-old selves.
In my letter to them, I encouraged the writing of another letter, to themselves at 40. Should I send my letter to you, to save for me? one of them asked.