A COUPLE OF WEEKS ago I was getting my hair cut by a new stylist. In the course of our first conversation, she told me a story that I am passing on to you. Since she doesn’t know I am doing this, I’m changing her name.
“Harriet” is a Maine native who came to Portland after high school to work in the field she always dreamed of, hair styling and cosmetics. I would judge that in hair-cutting she is well on her way to the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell tells us it takes for a person to achieve mastery in her craft.
So, the story. One recent Sunday, Harriet went home to visit her folks who live a couple of hours outside of Portland. As they were sitting down to dinner, Harriet’s mom said, “Here’s a letter that came for you.”
Harriet was puzzled by this. She has been living on her own since graduation, and she did not expect any more of her mail to come to her parents’ house.
What’s more, the handwriting on the envelope looked like her own! What was going on here? Surrounded by her curious family, she opened the letter.
And she immediately teared up as she remembered. In her senior year of high school, Harriet’s English teacher asked her students to write their five-years-in-the-future selves a letter of advice and encouragement. This was it. Harriet hadn’t remembered the assignment at all until she held it in her hand. She got chills as she read her own good advice to herself and marveled at how much she felt heartened by it.
I got a few chills myself as I thought about that unknown English teacher. What a wonderful assignment to pique the interest of jaded high school seniors, who don’t want to think about literature any more in the face of graduation, and whose motivation for imaginative writing might be pretty non-existent right then.
Speaking of imagination, what a creative idea that teacher had, thinking about how the letters might affect the writers five years later, and orchestrating a gift to the students that they didn’t even know they were giving.
The teacher doesn’t know the effect of the gift either, but she trusts enough to set the process in motion every year. Somewhere in her house that woman has five more boxes of letters stored carefully away and properly labeled with the target year, all ready to send out in the summers ahead.
Oh, come on. It’s just a letter. It’s just a writing exercise to keep them out of trouble until they can graduate. It’s not such a big deal.
Oh, but it is. That teacher knows what she’s doing.
That English teacher has read and taught the great writers. She has written poems, stories, letters, and essays. She’s read much student writing. She has seen and felt over and over the spark that flies, the gifts that are given, when a reader connects with another writer. The writer can be 2,000 years dead and from an alien culture. Or the writer can be yourself five years earlier. The stories connect.
That teacher’s professional life is about trusting the stories. She is immersed in the gifts to the future that comprise our culture.
She’s an educator, which means her professional role is to pass on this culture to the next generation, keeping the stories alive while knowing that every generation will change and add to them.
I hope our unknown English teacher puts a return address on those envelopes. I hope she gets thank-you notes from students who have received the gift of advice from their former selves. In case they forgot to write, I want to send along my thanks to her, and all teachers, who pass on these gifts every day.
Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at email@example.com.