By Jim Bates
The week before breaking for the holidays in December Sue Beasley teaches a section on letter writing in her sophomore English class. She always begins this way, “Okay, show of hands. How many of you regularly write letters?”
It’s a loaded question because it’s a rare hand that goes up, especially given this day and age. Most of her students tweet and text so this foray into composing and hand writing a letter to a friend or loved one is foreign territory to ninety-nine percent of her class, something she understands, but that doesn’t mean it’s a wasted exercise. Not by a long shot.
“All right then, let’s begin,” she says. “By the end of this week, you’ll be writing letters like the best of them, even Michelle Obama, one of the world’s most highly regarded letter writers.” She’s serious, but smiles to lighten the mood. Sometimes the students laugh, if even a little nervously.
She starts off by reading excerpts from five letters: one from her daughter two days after her first child was born, one from her husband when he was stationed in Vietnam, one from her mother to her father in nineteen forty-eight just after they were married, one from her grandmother in North Dakota to Sue’s mother in northern Minnesota in nineteen twenty-nine, and one from her great grandmother in Scotland to her grandmother at the turn of the century. That’s five generations of letters going back over one hundred years. By the time Sue’s finished, she has the student’s attention.
She points out that in each case the writer is communicating a message, story or information of some sort. The key word is communication.
“How do we communicate with each other?” she asks her class. Usually they will agree that talking with one another is the most basic form of communication. “Like we’re doing right now?” she asks and watches as lots of heads nod in the affirmative.
Then she plays a five minute video off YouTube showing a group of seven high school students sitting at a table in McDonald’s having a bite to eat and no one is talking. Everyone is buried in their phones, texting or whatever. When she shows that video the room always becomes silent.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she tells her class, “I’m not against cell phone use, it definitely has its place.” Relieved laughter usually follows. “I’m just very pro letter writing.” She leans over a picks up a letter and rubs it on her cheek. “You can hold it in your hand. Plus, they feel good.” The students usually laugh good-naturedly.
Sue’s earliest memory is of her mother at the kitchen table writing a letter while she played nearby with her teddy bear. Her grandma and grandpa farmed in northwestern Minnesota and Sue’s mother and her grandma wrote back and forth every week for nearly forty years. Her mother gave her those letters just before she died. To say she treasures them is putting it mildly.
Sue talks to her students about communication and about themes. She asks them, “If your only means of communication was to write a letter, what is it that you’d want to write about?” If she’s met with blank looks she shares with them letters written by famous letter writers like Winston Churchill, J. R. R. Tolkien and, of course, Michele Obama. She helps the class see that each letter has a theme, something the writer wants to communicate, whether it’s politics, day to day living, a humorous story or just sending a recipe for cookies. The students seem to enjoy that part of the class.
And everyday she has them write a letter. She teaches them the basic structure: salutation, introduction, body of the letter, summary and close. Then she turns them loose. The first assignment is simple – write one paragraph telling how letter writing is different than texting; that always gets the students in the mind set of writing a letter. Then she has them write a letter to a friend. Then to a grandparent. Then to a famous person (their choice). Finally, the last assignment before they leave for the holiday break is this: Write a letter telling her (Mrs. Beasley) what they are looking forward to doing over the winter break. It’s always a fun assignment. After she collects them she tells her students their homework assignment (she waves off the usual groans) is to plan a letter to her, to be written the first day they return from vacation. Then she sends them on their way.
The letters they write to “Dear Mrs. Beasley” when they get back are always interesting. They range from the simple and superficial, These are the presents I got…To the more intimate, such as dealing with a girl or boyfriend, or, of course, issues with parents. Some are heartbreakingly sad – students sharing about missing their mother or father or a sibling. The point is that most of the students have learned to communicate and express themselves in writing, and she can’t help but think that that’s a good thing.
Sue is not planning to retire anytime soon although she’s been a teacher for nearly forty years. She loves what she does. She’s seen a lot of trends come and go and has taught thousands of students. She knows we live in an electronic age and that texts and tweets rule the day. She also knows that her letter writing class has been one of her favorite parts of teaching. She can’t help but think it’s made an impact, especially when she gets a letter from one of her students. When she does, she saves it. She’s got over five hundred and she wouldn’t trade them for anything. You see, for her, there’s nothing better than reading a letter from a friend or loved one. Send her one sometime and enclose your address. She’ll be happy to write back and tell you all about it.