So I had this teacher in fifth grade.
We had an assignment in her English class that lasted two months, and to this day it is the coolest assignment I’ve ever had. We wrote letters to her in our English notebooks, and dropped them off in a box by her desk. She’d read, and she’d reply, and then you’d have to get another letter into her by the end of the next week. Obviously, most of the class thought this was a ludicrous idea, a waste of fifteen minutes their very busy, very important twelve-year-old lives, but I loved it. The letters didn’t have any specific requirements, it wasn’t reflecting on a book we were reading in class, or even necessarily the book you had to bring for independent reading, it just had to include something about literature. What your favorite genre was, how you felt about the Hunger Games movie that had just come out compared to the book, these were all things I wrote to her about.
I wouldn’t say I confided in her, not really. But it was my first full year at school in Mason, I’d moved the year before, and if you know anything about Mason, you know that it’s a huge school district. Ginormous. I went from a class of a hundred kids, to one with nearly a thousand. I felt like I was quickly disappearing into the masses, and no matter what I did I couldn’t feel seen, I couldn’t feel heard. I was one out of hundreds in my grade, thousands in my district, it made me feel small. Insignificant. Without a purpose.
These letters were a way for me to feel like I was building a connection with my teacher. One letter at a time, I could hold in my hand the conversations we had, the ones that belonged to only us. I felt like it gave my name a meaning, like out of a hundred faces she was actually seeing mine. Out of all her students, she’d talk to me and see something in my personality that was exclusively me.
I don’t know when I started doing it, but at one point I just decided I would stop signing mine “Sincerely, Alexandra.” I was feeling especially quirky before turning in one letter, and I ended it with “Your Favorite Student,” instead of “Sincerely.” Just because.
When I got my reply (and let’s just clarify, getting this response was the highlight of my week. I would run to get this notebook out of the return box, I would push the people who didn’t make room out of the way, I adored these things) I’m sure she was waiting for me to read it. Because when I reached the bottom, I looked to her and our eyes locked, and without missing a beat she winked. I don’t know that I stopped grinning like a lunatic for the rest of the day. She had signed off with “Your greatest English Teacher,” keeping with my theme, which was now our theme, and you have to understand this made me excited. I was giddy, trying to think up a new way to sign off each week.
The assignment ended after two weeks. I kept going anyway. I’m not entirely sure how long it lasted, but there were twenty something back-and-forth messages by the time I finally neglected to turn it in. I didn’t need to at that point. I knew we were close as student and teacher, I knew how I thought about her and how she thought about me, the letters became less and less valuable to me.
That notebook is still in my closet, and I will re-read the letters every once in a while. Whenever I have to be reminded of how important establishing relationships is, how beautiful traditional letters are in place of typed emails, how much my handwriting has improved since being twelve years old. The last sign off I ended with was “Eagerly Awaiting Your Reply,” and hers was “Patiently Awaiting Yours.”
Mrs. Morrow remains, to this day, one of my most influential teachers. I would sit in her class and I would watch, and I would listen, and I would wait for it all to soak in. I visited her almost every day after school in sixth grade, which meant I had to sprint to beat the buses, but that didn’t matter. I didn’t complain. Not until the last time I visited before I changed buildings for the middle school. And even then, it wasn’t really a complaint, just a string of nagging thoughts that flew through my head.
She’d been pregnant for a while before now, and I knew she was going to have to go on maternity leave. I was actually over the moon, I was thrilled for her. I was still thrilled for her when I found out she was moving to North Carolina. Thrilled for her, but not so much for myself.
Fast forward a bit (oh, only four years), and last week happens. My brother runs to get the mail, walks through the front door, and holds out an envelope addressed to me. I read it, then I read it again, and then slowly it begins to register, I begin to recognize the handwriting, and remember that her first name was never Mrs., it was Beth, which is right in front of “Morrow” on the return address of this white rectangle.
I was ecstatic. The neighbors probably were not, but who cares?
Completely and totally forgotten were the letters to our future selves we’d written on the last day of school that year. At least, on my end of the bargain. Mrs. Morrow definitely remembered. She sent them to all of us, all of her students, along with a letter of her own showing off her new life in North Carolina, with not one, but two boys. It wasn’t addressed to me specifically, but it did have an address accompanied by the statement “Just as I did on the last day of fifth grade, I will again give you my address if your would like to stay in touch.” You better believe I did. I drafted the first version of my response that same day.
It was sent yesterday, and as I write this now I have to resist the urge to run to the mailbox and make camp in front of it until her next letter arrives (campfire and all, of course). Her first personalized letter in four years.
Though I have to admit, I broke tradition a bit. This one wasn’t exclusively based on literacy or reading. It had a tad more content. And instead of coming up with a new sign off, I picked up where we left off.
Eagerly Awaiting your Reply,