It was a hot, sunny day in August 2016 when my dear friend, Christina, a third-grade teacher on Long Island, offhandedly mentioned an assignment she had given her eight-year-old students every year since she began teaching over 20 years ago.
She instructs them to write a letter to their 18-year-old selves.
Because the children are only eight years old, her classroom often erupts with questions like: “What do you mean by my future self?” Christina must prompt them to imagine themselves older. But she also reminds them to consider what is important to them now, so their adult selves won’t forget.
She then tells the students to place the letters in an envelope, address it to themselves in their childhood hand, and write on the back of the envelope: A Letter from the Past with a Message for the Future.
Christina then holds onto the letters for a decade, until she mails them back to the students on the week they graduate high school.
When I heard this story, I had deep emotional reaction to it. I was blown away by Christina’s dedication, as this assignment doesn’t end that day or even that week, but lasts for over ten years. It shows not only the extraordinary commitment Christina has toward her job as an educator and her students, but also her foresight.
She is creating a time capsule for her students of what their aspirations are at that moment in their lives. When the kids receive their letters, they get a rare glimpse back to their younger selves. But the timing of its return is also especially poignant, as students are about to leave their childhoods behind and enter college as young adults.
Christina’s students say they often don’t recognize their own handwriting when the letter arrives in their mailbox.
They think a small child has written to them. But when they open the letter, they instantly travel backwards into the past.
When they share the letter with their parents, everyone sees how much growth has happened in those ten years. Christina shared that she even had a parent who framed her child’s letter because it captured not only much she had evolved as a student, but also how much of her spirit had stayed the same.
But students aren’t the only ones who change. Teachers do, too.
My friend has taught for over twenty years, so every June when she goes down to her basement to peer into her store chest of letters, she too is different. As she reads the letters one last time before mailing them out, it forces her to ponder herself from two directions. Who was she that year of teaching, and who is she now? Also what stands out in high relief about each student as she reads their words and imagines their unfurling future ahead?
As a novelist, I couldn’t stop thinking about this assignment and all of its implications.
In fact, I ended up using it as part of the inspiration for my most recent book, The Secret of Clouds. Although I would create my own fictional characters for my novel, I knew the essence of the assignment would become the foundation for the story. I wanted this novel to be my love letter to teachers, a way of expressing my own personal gratitude for those teachers I’ve had in my own life and my children’s.
When I write, I’m drawn to characters who learn about themselves through personal connections. When I spoke with other educators while researching The Secret of Clouds I would tell them: “I want to show how you leave a lasting fingerprint on your students.” But unequivocally, the universal response from every teacher was: “But make sure you emphasize how much our lives have also been changed by our students!” I think that says it all.
Alyson Richman is the internationally bestselling author of seven novels. Her most recent book, The Secret of Clouds, focuses on a mother’s love, a child’s heart, and a teacher’s promise.
We’d love to hear—would you try a letters to our future selves–style assignment? Come and share in our WeAreTeachers Chat group on Facebook.
Plus, why I leave positive Post-it notes for my students every morning.