Third Grade. Small little red brick school in a backward farm town in Nowhere, Ohio. The type of school you would drive by your way to somewhere else and take a moment to gaze at the bell in the steeple and wonder if it ever rang. It didn’t. It had long ago succumbed to rust and neglect back in the days before partitions had turned the old one-roomed building into a multi-classroom efficiency for grades K through 4 in this slowly expanding community.
Mrs. Auburn lumbered past us, in her cotton printed dress and sheer stockings, in between our rows of perfectly lined desks while we waited, pencils poised for the new assignment to be explained. Each of us peered expectantly at the pages of names and addresses on the sheets of paper she placed in front of us.
Strange sounding names and stranger still places that bore no resemblance to any of our common Midwestern farm names stared back up at us giving no hint as to their reason for being there. We twittered and fidgeted and giggled as we practiced rolling the complicated names off of our tongues, teasing each other for the way they sounded to our ignorent ears.
Finished with her task, Mrs Auburn resumed her position of authority at the chalkboard, clapping her patterned smack, smack…smack,smack,smack-with her hands in her lively way which meant, without a word spoken, “Alright class, everyone be quiet, all eyes on me-I have something very important to say.”
We waited, wide-eyes and lips closed, for the unveiling of the mystery of the strange names.
“Class, you are each going to be assigned a Pen Pal. The person who’s name and address is on the piece of paper in front of you lives somewhere very far away in a far off country very different from America. They may have a different religion, they may have a different culture, they may have different family habits then you have. A Pen Pal is someone who you write letters to and learn all about them and they write to you back and learn all about you and if you are lucky, you will become life-long friends.”
I remember sitting at my desk thinking that this was the most exciting day of my entire school life so far. EVER. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my parents about our exciting assignment and how I was going to get a new best friend who lived in a whole new country and I was going to tell her everything and she was going to tell ME everything and we were going to be best friends FOREVER and EVER and when we grew up we would save our money and travel around the world together and see each others houses and the WHOLE world.
I guess I was always one for getting a little ahead of myself. Even back then.
I sat down to write to my new Pen Pal and I poured out everything I could think of. Name, Rank:oldest of three-lived on a farm, Hobbies: reading, writing, art, music ( the list was long) what I wanted to be when I grew up: Famous actress and writer, and every bit of trivia I could think of that was important in my world at the time. Bobby Kennedy had been the first love of my life and in the fall of 1969, my heart was still broken over his death, ( I was sure I would never fall in love again) and the fact that we had just landed on the moon that summer seemed to be great news to share in a Pen Pal letter to a stranger from a far off land. I included a school picture of myself and got ready to mail it off. We had our lesson on how to properly address an envelope and off it went to its destination.
I don’t remember anymore where that destination was. Sadly, because my Pen Pal never wrote back to me. Some of the kids in the class got letters back and Mrs. Auburn had them go to the front of the class and read their letters out loud and show any pictures or any enclosures that had been included. I waited. But mine never came. I wasn’t alone. A lot of kids were in the same situation. Looking back, I have to feel sorry for Mrs. Auburn. I would have been tempted to sit up one night and make up fake letters and send them out. I wouldn’t have been able to take the heartbreak. But she was brave. She taught us a more important lesson instead. A Life Lesson.
“Well kids, no matter how much you want them to, some people just don’t write back. Don’t hold it against them. Some people just don’t like writing that much. Keep at it though. Some day someone will write back.”
I didn’t try Pen Pals again. I did do Christmas cards-but I told myself I didn’t really care if anyone sent one back. I was just sending them out for my own sake. It wasn’t the same thing.
When my kids got to be older, Pen Pals weren’t popular anymore. I was relieved. I guess the teachers finally realized it was a heartbreaking lesson. Then one day my daughter came home with her eyes all aglow. She had been assigned to send a FLAT STANLEY letter. The more she talked, the more nervous I got. It was sounding like a flat little paper doll Pen Pal (which it is) who got to travel around the world in an envelope meeting new people and getting mailed back from a myriad of exotic locations. My own Pen Pal insecurities started to rear their ugly head and I became very negative about poor Little Stanley.
“Now honey, I don’t want you to be disapointed or upset when nobody responds to Stanley. Don’t take it personally if they don’t write or e-mail you or ignore your paper doll.” My daughter looked at me as though I was crazy. I could hear her thinking: Who in their right mind ignores Traveling Flat People?
I am happy to report that Flat Stanley had a wonderfully exciting adventure travelling all over the world and brought back many red pin pricks for the school map and grand stories to tell. He also restored my faith in Pen Pals. At least the Flat ones.
A comment to Melissa this morning on the post I wrote called the Letter to the World made me think about Pen Pals and prompted this memory. After all of these years of being sceptical about Pen Pals it is rather funny that I would enter the world of blogging and end up with Pen Pals-who actually write back- from all over the world!
Somewhere in my third grade mind I think this is what I envisioned. I would write, share some things about me…what I might feel was important and then you might write back and share somethings about you and what is important to you, we would have a conversation and a chat…
Maybe someday, some of us will meet, travel around the world and get to see how each other lives and really get to understand a lot more about this big huge world.
Why should Flat Stanley get to have all the fun?
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