57: Letters from Home

57: Letters from Home

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales

Letters from Home

To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything
but your heart.

~Phyllis Theroux

As teachers we are privileged to become a part of our students’ lives. They share their joys, frustrations, worries, and fears with us on a daily basis. Sometimes the emotions appear on the pages of a journal, where the writer can pretend the admissions are merely the story line for a work of fiction. Other times they are shared openly and enthusiastically during a morning meeting. Over the years, I have been privy to stories of new babies in the family and soccer goals in the final moments of the game. I’ve helped students deal with nightmares, divorces, and the death of a loved one.

The stories Abby shared were laced with both fear and pride. You see, Abby’s father was on active duty with the Army. As a result, she entered my second-grade classroom with an understanding far above her tender years, of the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan. More importantly, she was aware of the impact these far-away places could have on her family. It wasn’t long after school started that a somber-eyed Abby walked through the door. Her greatest fears had been realized; her father was preparing to leave the family to complete a six-month tour of duty. I remember listening to this brave eight-year-old tell her classmates the reason why she would miss the next day of school. She described the dreaded drive to the Army base and the moment she would tell her father goodbye in a voice laden with emotion. As Abby finished her announcement and turned to me for comfort, I said a silent prayer for her entire family.

That year was difficult for Abby. On a particularly upsetting day early in the separation, I suggested Abby write her father a letter. I quickly scrapped my lesson plans for teaching the students about the importance of adding details to their personal narratives and decided to introduce letter writing instead. While most of the students wrote letters to their friends about recess plans, Abby wrote to her father. She never mentioned her fears, preferring to create snapshots of family and school events he had missed with her words. We placed the letter in an envelope and I sent it home for her mother to mail. When Abby left the room that afternoon I sat at my desk and cried for the child who knew instinctively what her father would need to hear the most.

Abby’s letter writing became her therapy that year. For her benefit, I started including stationery as a staple in my writing center. Soon her cheery letters started arriving on brightly colored paper. She lovingly decorated each letter she wrote with drawings and stickers. As we prepared for Christmas, all of the second graders at my school collected items to ship to the soldiers overseas. Looking at the pile of toiletry items, phone cards, CDs, and snacks one day right before Christmas break, Abby explained that we had forgotten something important. I frantically looked through my list of requested items, trying to find the one small object that we could have possibly left out. Abby informed me it was letters—the soldiers needed letters. Again, I threw out the planned lessons on fractions and traditions so that my class could write all afternoon. Later, I packaged up the donated supplies and carefully placed the handwritten letters and homemade Christmas cards on top.

Abby continued to write letters to her father most of that year. It seemed he was just as diligent about returning notes to his only daughter… until late spring. Abby hadn’t received a letter in several weeks and the old fears started to return. I tried my best to comfort her, but it seemed hopeless. After a particularly difficult day, I made the decision to attempt to talk with Abby’s mother when she came through the car line at dismissal. Abby was pressed to my side as we approached the car with the tinted windows at cone number four. I prepared to lean in and voice my concerns as I opened the door. I never got a word out because Abby started to scream. Her backpack dropped on the sidewalk as she flew through the open door, across the passenger seat, and into her father’s lap! The tears ran silently down his face as he clutched his somewhat hysterical daughter to his chest. I took a seat beside Abby’s book bag on the sidewalk and attempted to control the tears that poured from my eyes. The other cars were rerouted around cone four as the three of us struggled to regain control. As I watched Abby and her father drive away I again realized how privileged teachers are to be a part of their students’ lives.

~Jenna Hallman
2009 South Carolina State Teacher of the Year
Science teacher, grades K-5

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