Are you sick of hearing about our house fire yet?
Don’t worry. I am, too. But bear with me through a final post on the subject.
It’s one I have avoided because I hate to cry when I type. But in the end, this isn’t about me. Not directly.
It’s about an assignment I did with my senior English classes for more than a decade.
On the last day of school, I had my students write letters to themselves which they stamped, addressed and turned in to me. I stored the letters for five years. Then I mailed them back.
My hope was that at the age of 22 or 23, they would read their own words and remember:
What their goals had been. Their interests and concerns. What made them the most happy. What they wished might differ in their lives later on.
Occasionally one of them would ask What if we move?
I had them add alternate addresses in the return-label spot. They’d write email contacts below the seal. I even searched for a few students on Facebook when their envelopes came back to me.
But I wasn’t willing to sacrifice the assignment because it had flaws. I knew some kids would never receive their letters, but I decided that the benefits outweighed the costs.
Then our garage caught fire in January and we lost everything inside. A lot of junk, I’ll admit. But also family pictures and old yearbooks. Boxes from my childhood. Writing journals. Diaries. My wedding dress.
Treasures that remain irreplaceable.
The loss that hurts most, however, is the final box of letters from the Calabasas High School Class of 2008.
This was their year to receive their letters. And I’m so very sorry that they’re gone.
I’m well aware that some students wrote nonsense simply to complete the assignment. Others probably forgot their efforts the moment they handed in their envelopes.
But many took pains to be meaningful. They included poetry and artwork. Phone numbers, prom pictures. A few even contacted me with new addresses, anticipating the day I’d send their letters.
And now they are gone.
Believe me, if I could save only one thing destroyed that day, it would be this box of letters. But since I cannot, I’m writing them this five-year-letter of my own in which I’ll share a few lessons I’ve learned as I move forward in this life.
So here goes.
It’s Mrs. Gardner. Your 12th grade English teacher. You know. The blond lady who was crazy about Hamlet. And all of you. The one who tried to memorize everyone’s name on the first day of school.
Yeah. That one.
I’m going to start with the usual old-person advice for the future.
Examine your life. Change what needs changing and fix what is broken. Important detail: Don’t wait for someone else to do this for you or it will never happen.
Smile and cry and laugh a lot. Both by yourself and then again with others.
Say I’m sorry if you do wrong and when people apologize to you, try to be gracious.
Read a lot, of course.
And get regular check-ups. Eat good food. Keep active but also rest when you are tired. In short, carry your body through this world as if it were precious cargo. Because it is.
You are important to me (still and always) so I ask you first to be safe with your health.
But then I also want you to promise you won’t be safe with your heart.
Take risks and welcome extraordinary opportunities; don’t settle for adequate surfaces. Dig deep until you find what moves the ground beneath you. Love spectacularly, in your loudest voice, ignoring whispered fears that your sentiment won’t be returned.
You are loved already and more than you may realize.
I guarantee that, at the moment of your birth, you began collecting hopeless admirers. So admire them right back; then invite newcomers to join your pack.
Surround yourself with people and things and experiences that are irreplaceable to you, despite the knowledge that such surrender carries with it the potential for great loss.
When you lose something you can’t replace, it means you have connected outside yourself – to someone, some moment, some dream – at a level that cannot be recreated.
But this also means your joys on every other day have been that much brighter and more meaningful for having risked such pain in the first place.
Above all, seek out and spread your light continuously.
Because if that’s not the purpose of life, I don’t know what is.
With great pride and respect,
That crazy Hamlet lady.
(But you can call me Julie, now. Please.)
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