My first pen pal was my grandma’s dog, Amigo. He wrote me stories on little scraps of birchbark about his life in the backyard: Digging holes, chasing squirrels, and accompanying my grandma on her walks. He asked me about what I was learning in school, what life was like in the big city, whether or not I was excited to be a big sister. When Amigo died, the correspondence responsibility was transferred to her new dog, Tangles. I was older then, and insisted upon having human pen pals. I loved the idea that my words could be taken anywhere in the world. I was hooked on a hobby that I practice to this day. Since moving to Montreal for university three years ago, I correspond mostly with a close friend from home, Seth Bartusek, and my 10-year-old sister, Hannah Jane. I spoke with both of them about how exchanging snail mail has changed the way they communicate.
“I started writing [you] letters because I started to miss you [...] and also I don’t have a phone,” Hannah said. “You don’t have to have a phone to stay in touch with people and you don’t need to have technology to be friends with someone.”
Every other week, I get a letter from Hannah in the mail. The envelope is typically covered in animal stickers, with the note inside featuring crayon drawings and pasted clippings from National Geographic Kids or Highlights magazine. When I look at these pieces of paper, I feel like a bigger part of her childhood than I often am, given that school keeps me away from home and family for all but around 20 days out of the year. I love that she shares her interests with me, despite living so far away. Aside from our letters, Bartusek and I also exchange slices of our lives—or whatever can fit in an envelope. He shed light on the little things that make giving and receiving letters all the more special.
“I have pen pals that will throw in swatches of fabric, little cards they’ve collected, quotes written on scraps of paper, or a [physical] playlist,” Bartusek said. “Those are worth just as much as the letter [...] the time it took to collect them is a little memento to your friendship, so you can feel the care that goes into it. Beyond that, it makes getting a letter filled with trinkets so much better than just the letter itself, it’s like a stocking [...] it’s a whole little package that your friend made for you and I love to go through each of those little things along with the letter.”
In 2006, my Grade 1 classroom in Chicago, Illinois was one of around 6,000 classrooms to participate in the Flat Stanley Project
, started in London, Ontario 11 years earlier by special education teacher Dale Hubert. The project was designed to improve the literacy skills of young children while also encouraging students to learn about kids outside their own classroom and school. Instead of writing and exchanging regular letters, students include a small paper cut-out based on the main character of the 1964 children’s book Flat Stanley
by Jeff Brown. The students are asked to write a story about their Flat Stanley, detailing where he is from and what he does for fun. They then mail their letter and Stanley cut-out to a friend or student in another participating school. The person who receives the letter is to take a photo with the cut-out and send a reply back to the original student.
“I was fortunate to have begun my career as a special education teacher [in a school] where there was no curriculum and each teacher was expected to provide individual programming for each student,” Hubert said. “That type of individualization is much more difficult in a regular classroom, but if there is an open-ended, authentic activity that captures the interests of the students, they can be successful at their own pace individually and learn additional skills collaboratively. Seeing their work posted on the internet was motivating, and hearing back from new friends and even celebrities encouraged even the most reluctant writer to produce quality work.”
By 2011, the project that had started in a single Canadian city included over 88 participating countries each year. As for me, I sent two Flat Stanleys in 2006: One to a girl on the other side of Chicago and one to a girl who lived in Brazil. I exchanged a few letters with each, though our correspondence never advanced beyond sending our Flat Stanleys back and forth. I expanded my list of pen pals to include my sailing partner, friends who went away for sleep-away camp, and a girl I met while on a camping trip in Wyoming.
One reason snail mail feels so good to receive is that it takes considerable effort to send. Going through the steps to mail a letter takes time, energy, and money. For many, like Odessa Grimard, U3 Science, it’s an enjoyable hobby. Grimard has a close friend who she writes to on a regular basis. The two write almost exclusively with pens dipped in ink, and their letters can span up to 32 single-spaced, double-sided pages.
“I feel that letter-writing is an interesting way of communicating, because there’s communication in the very act of writing a letter, regardless of its contents,” Grimard said. “A handwritten letter says, ‘Look, I wrote this to you and I posted it. I could have typed it up and sent it, but I wrote it down, got an envelope, got stamps, and took the time to go to the post office to mail it to you, because I care about you.’ It’s so many extra steps to communicate that it’s like some weird performance art, and it is so, so worth it.”
Indeed, the key feature of any letter is its handwriting. No two people's handwriting is the same, thus each letter is unique. In an increasingly digital and technologically focussed world, handwriting skills are left to the wayside. In 2010, the Common Core standard in the United States no longer required
public elementary schools to teach cursive handwriting in their classrooms, instead opting for typing and computer-centred classes. The age gap between me and my two siblings is wide—seven and 10 years, respectively—and that means that while I learned those skills in elementary school, they won’t. I learned cursive in an academic setting that was right in the middle of switching from overhead projectors with transparency sheets to SMART boards, and then, eventually, to the projectors that we use today. While I am thankful that I learned cursive properly, I do think it was perhaps a waste of time, because the curriculum was dismantled so soon after I had taken the class. Because the government said it was no longer useful, that’s what I thought, too. My siblings, who attended elementary school after 2010, can type faster and with more accuracy than I could at their age, which is a skill that they will only develop further as technology itself advances.
Since relieving schools of the cursive requirement in 2010, several lawmakers have made cases
for including cursive writing in curricula, such as motor skills, brain development, occupational therapy, information retention, and even patriotism, fighting to bring it back
to schools. Anne Trubek, author of The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, argues
that the reasoning that lawmakers provide skirts the real issues, which are cultural.
“Indeed, the desire to write faster has driven innovations throughout history: Ballpoint pens replaced quill pens; typewriters improved on pens; and computers go faster than typewriters,” Trubek wrote. “Why go back? [....] The goal of early writing education should be for children to achieve “cognitive automaticity” in it—the ability to make letters without conscious effort—as soon as possible, so they can think about what they want to say instead of how to write the words they need to say it. Many students now achieve typing automaticity—the ability to type without looking at the keys—at younger and younger ages, often by the fourth grade. This allows them to focus on higher-order concerns, such as rhetorical structure and word choice.”
Trubek’s ideas about developing writing skills rather than writing styles extend to higher-level academia, too. At McGill, many professors, specifically in humanities courses, maintain a “no laptop rule” in favour of handwritten notes. Ned Schantz, a professor in the Department of English, restricts laptop use in his classes, with the exception of students who are registered with the Office for Students with Disabilities or are designated note-takers for the class.
“My laptop restriction policy began in Fall 2013,” Schantz wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “It does not require handwritten notes. In fact, I encourage students to consider taking no notes at all to concentrate on following the discussion [....] But, many students do take handwritten notes in my class, and the simplest way to describe the difference is that the computer notetakers tend to type furiously, whereas students tend to be more selective with what they note by hand. It seems to encourage them to differentiate what's most important and make it easier to capture the flavour of ideas.”
Schantz believes that handwriting and snail mail correspondence have a special temporal nature as both a narrative device and cultural affair.
“The bonding [of letter writing] is arguably a function of several interlocking factors: Not just intimate forms of address, but the double privacy of the fold and the envelope, and finally the magical temporality of correspondence, in which every letter enfolds the moment of narrated events with the moment of writing and the moment of reading,” Schantz wrote in an email to the Tribune. “The double action of prospection and retrospection saturates time with the significance of the relationship.”
The relaxed pace of communication via letter writing provides it with an extra edge of nostalgia that texting or sending an email simply cannot replicate.
“In the past, people were voracious letter writers because that was the technology available,” Hubert said. “In many large cities, the mail used to be delivered twice a day, so it was almost like a chat. Devices such as the telegraph, telephone and computer increased the immediacy of communication, but haven't necessarily improved the content.”
Ella Corkum, U2 Arts, believes that writing letters has changed the way she communicates. When she writes letters, her style is very much narrative-driven compared to when texting, which, she says, feels like typing out bullet points.
“The fact that you can’t [press] backspace makes you really think about everything you say, so no matter who you are and what your creative writing skills are, letters often come out very beautifully written,” Corkum said. “I also love the material aspect of letters. They can never be deleted and you can hold them in your hand and etch your own handwriting into the page. I think it has a similar benefit [that] collecting records does. I love that you can hold in your hand the same paper than your pen pal held instead of just being transferred a series of zeros and ones or whatever texts are made of.”
Vlada Vdoniva, U2 Arts, finds that the simplicity of writing letters is especially rewarding, for it allows them to share their writing with someone.
“I think having pen pals has definitely made me a much more coherent and expressive writer,” Vdoniva said. “I was never a big fan of journaling because I never felt any kind of catharsis writing something and addressing it to no one, or even just the diary. Writing letters that actually go to someone makes me want to talk about things that happened in my day, and since I am actually going to get a response, they make me want to ask questions that [I] don't need an immediate answer for.”
I, too, have found a similar feeling as Vdoniva. No matter how many times I started a journal or told myself that I would keep a consistent log of my activities and life, I could not overcome the fact that my writing would remain hidden away in my desk drawer or bedside table. Journaling was anything but therapeutic for me, as my handwritten words always feel more meaningful when addressed to someone I love.
In isolation, disconnected families have sought creative ways to keep in touch. Writing letters to Hannah has been a comfort for me, and it will continue to be. I like putting letters together for her, complete with stickers from fruit I eat, or pencil drawings covering the envelope. And, she loves putting together her letters for me. The only thing that will change is when she puts her letters in the mailbox, given a move to online classes.
“I have to take time to write it, then put a stamp on it, write out the address, and then decorate it! Then, I have to put it in the mailbox on the way to school,” Hannah said. “I can’t just click a send button and then it gets there right away. Then, also I have to wait forever to get a response.”