I recently received a letter.

writing letter

I recently received a carefully worded, eloquently written, beautifully handcrafted, and unexpected letter in the post from a former student. The letter came as a surprise for several reasons. In a time where electronic communication has become our preferred method of correspondence, it felt strange to receive something so personal in my mailbox. These days I associate the receipt of an envelope with the propagation of junk advertising, a request for money, or a useless waste of paper. Most of the time I don’t even bother opening them. Therefore, it was refreshing to read the return address and realize that I held in my hand a small package that was precious – just for me. Feeling excited to open my special treat, I saved it for later in the day when I knew I would have the time and headspace to properly unveil its contents. When I finally found a peaceful moment, I tore into the envelope and encountered my next surprise. The letter was entirely hand written. As I opened the card and unfolded the extra paper that had been attached with tape, my eyes widened at the sheer length of the thing. I suddenly felt quite honored that someone had made the effort to manipulate a pen on a piece of paper to send me a message. Here in the age of technology, where time is a precious commodity, someone had used theirs to sit and write to me. With the speed and editing abilities of the word-processor, to sit and scribe by hand seems like such an arduous task. Yet what a simple and meaningful act. As I scanned the letter, I noticed that the penmanship was impeccable and still recognizable! Small, printed, round black letters filled the cream colored card paper in perfectly straight lines. It was as if an invisible ruler had been used to carefully construct each sentence. When the initial awe wore off, it was replaced by excitement and I began reading slowly – putting as much effort into absorbing each deliberately selected word as it took to transpose them onto paper. I wanted the moment to last a while as I knew these occasions would be few and far between.

I don’t know what I expected the letter to be about. At the time I probably envisioned an update on the student’s life at university. I was honestly a bit surprised to hear from her because I never felt a great connection to most of the students in that particular class. I frankly thought they were all uninterested in biology and only took it because they needed a standard level science course to complete their diplomas. Many of them complained a lot. They whined and moaned about tests and assignments. There were many great classes of course, but I always felt nervous when I stood at the front of the room. How many would have their heads on their desks today? When I wrote about my spiral of shame, this was one of the classes I felt deep regret about. I felt I had never truly engaged the students in the joys of biology and the wonder of learning about science. I felt I had focused too much on the end result and not enough on the learning process. And I felt so incredibly guilty when they did poorly on their mock exam, as if I had failed them in some way.

But that’s not what she wrote about.  She wrote about her very personal, and at times emotional, response to reading my blog. She wrote the student’s perspective of facing the same internal struggles about learning, that I felt about teaching. She wrote about feeling the pressure to get results from her peers and her community. She described the duality of hating this cultural obsession with numbers and rankings yet succumbing to their inevitable feeling of reward and accomplishment. She explained her battle between spending time learning what she wanted versus what was deemed necessary. I was completely taken aback at her insight, her maturity and how little I had really known this incredible individual while I taught her. We had more in common that I ever would have known if it hadn’t been for this one, very special handwritten letter.

What was most touching about the letter, however, was that she wrote about passion and how she is drawn to those who possess it. She claims that my passion for learning and biology was felt by the students in the class and they appreciated my effort to make the subject interesting and memorable. She wrote that biology was more enjoyable than she ever thought it could be and that I had made a positive impact on their lives. It was my turn to become emotional. It was the nicest surprise I had experienced for a long time. I felt validated. I felt encouraged. I felt motivated to continue trying to be a better teacher. And I felt reminded not to lose my passion – not to forget why I started down this career pathway all those years ago.

This letter is now a treasured possession and I have read it (and will read it) several times. I feel like the impact of its words are more meaningful as they have been scribed by hand. My colleague @brendancoreyb has actually started a blog called Chirography inspired by the handwritten word. He is currently piloting a 1:1 iPad program with his students to engage them in digital handwriting. My favourite quotation comes from the page on Purpose:

“…digital handwriting can draw bridges between cerebral flex and the vastness of the Internet – my thoughts will not be lost between the on-off of cursor blink.”

I believe there is some kind of relationship between the pen and the mind that goes beyond the kinesthetics of writing. For me, writing by hand is more than just a neuromuscular response to the electrical messages sent from our brains. There is something intimate about it that doesn’t exist when we type on a keyboard and a generic font appears on our screens. Those unique ink impressions on paper represent a part of ourselves that we know and that others recognize. And when we send handwritten letters, we give away a tiny part of ourselves to others because we feel that they matter and they are worth it. So thank you, my dear student, and you can expect a letter in the post sometime soon.

Image URL: http://www.flickr.com/photos/williamarthur/4639772572/sizes/o/in/photostream/   Attributed to William Arthur Fine Stationary.

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