I was eight years old when I was introduced to Mrs. Jenkins. She was a teacher from Manchester, England who had come to my elementary school in Milwaukee to participate in a cultural exchange. Mrs. Jenkins was warm and engaging, and she had many interesting stories about life in the UK.
As a third grader with a vivid imagination, I was pretty sure she was the sister of Mary Poppins and had a purse full of magic.
Before she left our school, Mrs. Jenkins asked if any of the students in our class would be interested in having a pen pal in England. My hand shot up immediately. The thought of writing to a child who lived on another continent was thrilling. So on a piece of construction paper, I scrolled my name, age, interests and home address in magic marker. Mrs. Jenkins put it in her magic purse and promised to find me the perfect match.
Some months later, an envelope arrived from overseas from a girl named Sarah. She sent me a short letter and a few photographs. She had blonde hair and a brother, just like me. In third grade our letters were rather simple, filled with questions like, What is your favorite food? Do you also find your brother annoying? Do you have a favorite song? And every letter ended the same way: Please write back.
I remember going to the mall with my allowance in hand so I could stock up on stationary and stickers to make my letters special.
In elementary school we wrote about friends, books and Michael Jackson. In middle school our letters were about the boys we had crushes on. In high school we shared our thoughts about the Gulf War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was no Skype, Facebook or email back then.
Having a pen pal made us better writers, and it made us more curious about the world. I loved reading Sarah’s thoughts and opinions, and I dreamed of meeting her in person.
Then high school ended.
When college began, life got hectic and I moved to another city. My childhood was boxed away in my parents attic, and finally, one of us forgot to write back. That was two decades ago ago.
I still think about Sarah often, and wonder how she is doing. Is she still in England? Is she a mom? Has she been to the United States? I have tried to find her on social media, but no luck so far…
I am grateful that Mrs. Jenkins found my perfect match all those years ago. And I am thankful to Sarah for being such a faithful friend for so long. Our letter exchanges were a very special part of my childhood.
This summer my daughter turned eight. One day, as I was telling her about my pen pal, she asked if she could have one, too. I was delighted! I got right to work investigating websites that pair writers based on age and interests.
Then I remembered that I had a more direct route to a pen pal!
One of my friends is a teacher in London. I messaged her on Facebook and asked if she could help me find a match for my daughter. Well, within a matter of days, we had a name and an address. Today, 35 years after being introduced to my pen pal, my third grader is writing to a friend overseas. In fact, she just sent a letter in the mail last week. This wonderful tradition continues…
“MOM, she loves cats, just like me!”
I don’t know how long they will write, but I am glad that my daughter has this experience. And this summer our family is stopping in London on our way to the Baltic, so perhaps these girls will have the opportunity to meet!
This will be my first time in England, though I’ve been dreaming of it since Sarah’s first letter arrived in 1983. For me the experience will be bittersweet.
So many of us have friends in other parts of the world. If you are interested in pairing your child with a pen pal, those connections are a great place to start. If you have questions about the pen pal experience, don’t hesitate to ask!