When I say that I greatly prefer written communication to any other form (often including seeing people face-to-face!), it’s not just something that I’ve recently decided and declared. My love of forming relationships through writing has been present for as long as I can remember. I remember the first time I heard about the concept of penpals. Back in the days before every home and every child had mobile phones and computers and internet access, the idea of befriending someone from another country was incredibly exciting to me. The rest of the world beyond my own little town was a mysterious, unknown place, and it fascinated me because I knew so little about it.
I got my first penpal through a school scheme – a French girl whose name I don’t recall. We exchanged several letters in a mixture of my shaky beginner French and English that she could barely understand. It wasn’t a great success, to be honest, since we were both at the age where we wanted to be able to ask and say more, but were prevented from doing so by our language barrier. Our communication gradually fizzled out.
However, it had sparked a desire in me to write to more friends. I had experienced the thrill of receiving a postmarked envelope containing a handwritten letter from a stranger who wanted to tell me about her life, and the joy of sitting down with a fresh sheet of paper to reply.
Then I discovered the ‘penpals wanted’ section of my pre-teen magazine of choice, Fast Forward. Again, this was back in another world where it was perfectly OK for children to have their names and addresses printed in national publications, requesting strangers to contact them! I wrote to a girl named Marjorie in the USA – I don’t know how she’d managed to get into a British magazine, but there she was anyway. I remember her being fascinated by me and asking if we had TV and running water in Ireland. I didn’t get annoyed though, because she also kept sending me lots of gifts that were very foreign and exciting to me: Lifesavers sweets (“candies”, she called them, just like Americans on TV!!), pictures of her basketball heroes, even some items of clothing. We didn’t have a lot in common, so that friendship didn’t really go anywhere either, but by now I was hooked. I put an advert of my own in Fast Forward, and it was published just before we went on a family holiday. To my utter delight, I came back to about 40 letters from all over the UK, and a few farther afield. That summer, I had a constant supply of letters arriving every single day, and I loved it.
I gradually ended up with just a handful of regular penpals, the ones with whom I had things in common and had become good friends. One of them, an English girl, was almost identical to me in terms of interests and personality, and we would spend hours writing to each other – pages and pages and pages, every week. I went to stay with her when I was sixteen, and she with me a few months later. We made silly movies for each other with all our friends, and talked on the phone on special occasions. She was one of my best friends throughout my late teens, despite living in another country, and although we’ve lost touch in the decade that’s passed since then, and I can’t find her online, I fully intend to write to her at her parents’ old address to fulfil number 101 of my 101 Things list! (So regularly and often did we write, the address still trips easily off my tongue to this day.)
I don’t get many letters nowadays, since email and Facebook and Skype have changed our world. I’m a fan of all three of these things (in fact, of the three times in my life I’d say I’ve been ‘in love’, two of them were with online acquaintances who wrote me lengthy emails and became modern-day penpals before they were anything more! I know, I know… how very You’ve Got Mail), but it makes me a little sad that the joy of letter-writing is fading from our world. The feeling of anticipation as you see the envelope with elegant or messy handwriting addressed to you, the excitement of opening it, the pleasure of reading the letter, the enjoyment of writing back… not many people experience it, these days.
So, I decided to keep it alive by setting up some of my grade one students with penpals from my old school in Northern Ireland. With a little help from my mum, I made contact with a very nice teacher and got a list of names of children who wanted Korean penpals. Yesterday, my class of 7-year-olds bounded in very excitedly after school for their English class, asking if today was the day when they’d be sending their letters. For the first time, they’re getting to use English for a reason other than, well, “to learn English”. They’re communicating with someone far away, and they’re so excited about it – they spent the class carefully writing their introductions, asking their questions, and gluing their photos to the page. It was very cute!
It brought back very good memories from my own childhood, and I recaptured my excitement and enthusiasm through theirs. I can hardly wait till they get their replies, and I get to watch them opening and reading the letters their new friends have written them!