Meeting the Pen Pals

Since early this year, through a volunteer opportunity offered by my employer, I’ve been exchanging letters with two boys who attend a local elementary school. I signed up for the program because I wanted to volunteer in some capacity, but couldn’t imagine much that I could do between working full time and taking care of my mom. Then along came this program, and I instantly knew it was something I not only could manage, but wanted to do. The time commitment was flexible. Once the school sent the notebooks to the office, I’d have a week to write a few paragraphs to each boy, whenever my schedule allowed. Plus – it involved writing. It was the perfect fit for me.

Darius, Theo and I have been passing a notebook back and forth for the past few months. I really lucked out with these two boys. They were very engaged and open with me, and I felt a sense of attachment right from the start. They made me laugh at times with the things they wrote. They proved they were typical grade school boys with their love of video games and all things Star Wars. Sometimes they pulled on my heartstrings, like when each told me they had siblings who did not live with them, and how that made them feel sad.

I began to really look forward to those days when my focus on some work project was suddenly interrupted by the familiar plop of the notebook landing on my desk as the program facilitator walked through the office passing them out to the volunteers. I couldn’t wait to read my letters from the boys. Sometimes the pages were filled with words and drawings. Other times, I could tell their interest had fizzled for the moment, or maybe they simply hadn’t had time to write much. Sometimes Theo would write on behalf of both Darius and himself. I often found myself seeking out my coworkers to share something the boys had written. I think my boss is sorry he didn’t get in on this program. I’m sure he will participate next year!

Theo often wrote to me about his dog, how Hades likes to chase (and eat) squirrels, and how he ruined most of his toys by chewing and tearing them apart. In another letter, he told me about his favorite book, Runt. His description of the story was so compelling that I’m determined to read it myself before long.

In one of his letters, Darius wrote, “There’s something I haven’t told you. I have a limb difference on my right hand and instead of 5 fingers, I have 5 little nubs and if somebody punches it, it won’t hurt and my hand packs a punch!”

When I replied, I thanked Darius for sharing that with me. I told him it sounded like his hand gave him a super power!

In one of their last messages, the boys again worked together to write to me. They got silly this time, with Theo describing how he had discovered that Darius doesn’t actually have a limb difference. It’s just that his hand is invisible. “I figured it out,” he wrote, “because he kept saying it is invisible. I pinch it, he screams, and look at the light and see glitter. YAY!” He then added, “And what did you do for spring break?”

So adorable, and imaginative, those boys!

At this point, we were warned that the program was winding down and it was time to start saying our goodbyes. I wanted to give “my” boys something special by which to remember our pen-pal friendship. So playing off the little story Theo had written to me about Darius’ invisible hand, I wrote them a story. (Four pages of handwritten story feels like a lot when the keyboard is my usual medium!)

In my story, I described how everyone thought that Theo and Darius were just your typical third-grade boys, but that they had a secret. Darius told everyone he had a limb-difference, but the secret was that it was really an invisible hand with special powers. If Theo pinched Darius’ special hand, it would make glitter rain down from above. The glitter had magic powers to make everyone forget what was happening at that moment, and to make any bad situation better.

I went on to describe how on one particular Monday, the boys’ teacher, Mrs. Sauerkraut announced there would be a surprise test on spiders, centipedes, worms and water beetles. The class was disappointed, but the two boys saved the day when they used their super power to make their teacher forget she had planned the test. After the glitter had showered down over the class, Mrs. Sauerkraut was confused and asked the class if they remembered what she had said they were supposed to do that day. The two boys told her she had just announced they were having a class party with video games, ice cream and dancing. The whole class shouted with joy!

I hoped the boys would like my story. I didn’t think they would be writing back to me again, but it turned out that they would write one last time. When my notebook arrived, I excitedly turned to their last entry.

“Dear Tee,” it said. “We are not in 3rd grade. We are in 4th.”

That was it. I was mildly disappointed. And confused. I had thought they were in 3rd grade. I paged through the letters and realized neither had ever confirmed this.

Yesterday was our year-end celebration. The other volunteers and I hopped on a bus and we all rode over to the elementary school to meet our kids. After donning our sticker guest passes which authorized us to be in the building, we all strode through the hallways to the classrooms where our kids were waiting. Lined up at the front of the room with the other volunteers, I faced a classroom full of young and eager faces. The kids were smiling, shouting hello, and trying, but failing to keep still as they waved at us with eager anticipation. I scanned the faces to see if I could pick out my boys when I heard my name called out. I followed the sound of the voice and saw a curly haired boy waving right at me. As soon as I saw the hand he was waving, I recognized Darius. Momentarily wondering how he knew it was me, I realized I had been holding our notebook against my chest. The front of the notebook where our names were written in large print, was facing the class. Darius had seen it and recognized me.

As soon as we were all paired with our kids, we each moved to separate places to do an art project and enjoy some ice cream. The first thing Darius did was show me the nubs on his hand. He twisted one around and when I asked if that didn’t hurt, Theo responded for him. “Nope! No bones!”

In our writings, Theo was clearly more engaged, but in person, it was Darius who spilled over with the most enthusiasm. Both boys chattered on comfortably with me, asking me to elaborate on things I’d told them in my letters. Theo frequently paged through the notebook, pointing out things we’d discussed. At one point, he mentioned, “We didn’t think you’d look like you do.”

“Oh yeah?” I laughed. “What did you think I would look like?”

“Darker hair,” they both nodded, but offered no reason they might think this. I could only smile. Ten year-olds are cute!

“Sorry I thought you were in third grade,” I said, referring to the story I had sent them. “They told us before we started writing to you that you were in third. Did you like my story anyway?”

“It was awesome!” they exclaimed. Theo added, “You should be a writer.”

(Thanks, Kiddo!)

These boys were not only cute and funny, they were smart! They told me about research projects they were working on, and showed me the work they’d done so far, including columns of notes, and colorful paintings. When I asked about favorite books they’d read, I didn’t recognize some of the titles. Trying to think of things we might have in common, I asked if they’d ever read the Harry Potter books.

Darius grew solemn. “My family doesn’t read Harry Potter. We’re Christian. And you know Christians don’t really like Harry Potter books.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well I’m a Christian, and I read a couple of the books. I liked them, but they’re just stories, not real.”

Darius looked at me skeptically. “Are you Baptist?”

“No, I’ve gone to a few different kinds of churches, but I guess I’m mostly Catholic.”

This statement excited him. “You’re Catholic? Let me ask you this! Do you like Popes?”

This kid was killing me! I laughed and said, “Well I guess I like the current Pope pretty well. Why do you ask?”

“Because,” he said. “Catholics put the Pope second in line behind Jesus and that breaks the second commandment, you know. Thou shalt not have …”

“… other gods before me?” I guessed. (I don’t have the exact wording memorized, but I figured I knew where he was going with this.)

“Yeah!” he said, seeming pleased that I was following him. “You’re not supposed to do that, you know.”

“Well, we don’t think the Pope is a god,” I explained. “I guess we just think he’s a pretty smart guy that can help us understand what God might want us to do.”

I did not in a million years think I’d be discussing religion with these kids. I found out later I’d probably lucked out with the religion conversation. One of my coworkers ended up hearing about how one of her kids wouldn’t vote for Trump, because he hates a particular ethnicity.

Wanting to steer our conversation back to something we could all appreciate, I asked if anyone had seen the new Jungle Book movie. Soon we were back to normal with both boys talking over one another, each wanting to tell me more things and ask more questions.

As we spent time together,  it occurred to me that my role all this time was supposed to involve helping the kids develop their writing skills, but these boys made the entire experience so unbelievably rewarding for me. The hour of time we had together flew by. I had no awareness of the other volunteers and kids around me in the noisy classroom. I was completely immersed in “my” kids. When it was announced that it was time to say goodbye, both boys expressed a disappointed “Aw!” I felt exactly the same. I could have easily spent more time with them and felt a sadness that we would no longer be able to write each other.

Theo mentioned that he wished he had his phone. Vaguely marveling at the fact that a fourth-grader has a cell phone, I asked why he wanted it.

“So we could take a picture!”

“I have mine,” I suggested. His eyebrows rose in anticipation and as the teacher strolled by our table, I asked if it was okay for me to take a photo. She assured me that was fine. I tried to get a selfie of the three of us, but Darius was busy dancing around and Theo insisted on sticking out his tongue the entire time. I ended up with nothing but blurred photos. Finally, I managed to get them to sit still long enough for me to take one of just the two of them.

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I will never forget these two boys. I’m glad I thought to make a copy of our letters before the notebook was finally returned to them to keep. And now I have a photo by which to remember them as well. As we rode back to work after our visit, my heart was filled with sincere gratefulness that I’d been “given” these two particular boys and had the chance to enjoy their friendship for a little while. I hope that I made a positive impact in some small way, and that they’ll grow up and meet the potential that’s so easy to see inside of them today.

6 thoughts on “Meeting the Pen Pals

  1. Wow! This really moved me. I remember when you blogged about starting this volunteer work. If it were me, I might’ve teared up when saying goodbye. This was so exciting that you got to meet them. I didn’t know that was going to happen and that you’d have to say goodbye.

    Children that age really do reflect what their parents say and do, don’t they? it made me wonder if their parents were teaching them to be intolerant of Catholics.

    My brother’s kids, who are ages 11 and 8 (twins) know all about what’s happening with politics. I had to watch the 11 year old they other day, and he said something I found very divisive. It disappoints me that my brother may be teaching him such things. I actually told him another side of the story so he could get a little more well-rounded information. Sigh.

    I loved meeting Theo and Darius, and I’m so happy you shared the story.


  2. This totally takes me back to my teaching days. In fact, I taught 4th grade, so everything you described is exactly how I remember the kids to be.
    It’s so cool you got to meet them. I know you were unsure if you would. It’s a great program, and sounds like it has a huge impact on the volunteers as much as the students. 😉


  3. Now this brings me to my pelpal writing days several years ago…. it was a joy to receive a letter from overseas, I had penpals from Germany, Canada, USA and Ivory Coast. And we all wrote voluminously the letters were almost parcels.
    But the internet kills penpal relationships……


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