When I was in the Seventh Grade at Earl Warren Jr. High, we had an English assignment that required us to select a pen pal and write them a letter. We were paired up with a school in, at that time, West Germany and our class was given a foreign student’s name and address. We were required to write one letter. It was a brief school assignment that changed the way I viewed the world.
As the result of a random selection, my pen pal became a thirteen year old girl named Simone Merkle. I sent her a letter introducing myself and I’m sure I would cringe if I read the contents today. I would like to think my letter was a thoughtful representation of an American teenager who was well versed on current events and world geography. Instead, I’m sure I spoke about my “Wizard of Oz” collection and my desire to join the “Ice Capades.”
I quickly received a letter back from Simone and it far exceeded my expectations…
Everything seemed exotic about this note from across the world: the red and blue stripes of the Air Mail envelope, the peculiar stamps and post mark, seeing “U.S.A.” written below my address. I was living in a pre-Internet world and had managed to connect with someone across the globe with nothing more that a pen, paper and stamp.
I wonder if you could even explain that process to a kid today?
In Simone’s first letter, I learned that she lived in the Black Forest, near France and Switzerland. I referred to our family’s Encyclopedia Britannica set to confirm her whereabouts. She told me she had blue eyes and brown hair and no siblings. She listed her hobbies and they didn’t sound much different than my own interests. She told me her nickname in her English class was “Sandy” and I could address her by that if I wished. I wouldn’t dream of it. If I was going to have an international friend, I wanted her name to be exotic!
Our correspondence continued over our Seventh Grade year and by summer I had forgotten our meeting was the result of an assignment. Her letters were filled with the details of a typical teenager’s exploits. She spoke about going to the movies, hanging out with her friends and listening to her favorite “Roxette” cassette tape.
We shared photos of each other…
She sent me handmade birthday greetings…
And post cards from her “holiday” travels…
I remember the details of her trips inspired me to also use the term “holiday” instead of vacation. In my mind, it sounded so grand, so European. However, I only had a chance to use that phrase once. My brother caught me saying, “My family and I are taking a ski holiday to Big Bear Lake” and then he beat me up.
My Eighth Grade year was documented monthly by letters from Simone. She spoke about her parent’s divorce and having to choose whether she would live with her father or mother. When the Berlin Wall fell in October of 1990, she wrote about her hope for a unified Germany.
Suddenly, we weren’t little kids swapping letters anymore. Our written words had followed each other into adolescence and I looked forward to seeing the world through her experiences.
My letters from Simone became infrequent near the end of my Sophomore year of high school. I read the last letter I received from her and there’s no indication as to why we stopped corresponding. Perhaps we both became busy with the trials and tribulations of our high school experiences. Maybe she went off to University early and didn’t have time to write to a guy in Nebraska that she had never met in person. Or it could simply be that we drifted off into separate directions as friendships have a tendency to do.
I never forgot about Simone. When I went off to college I thought about reconnecting with her and I had visions of backpacking through Europe with my buddy from Germany. I could see us getting Eurail passes, staying in youth hostels and sipping cappuccinos in cafes that are adjacent to grand art museums. We could talk about our long written friendship and dissect all of the thoughts and events we had experienced in our youth. Upon coming home, I would tell everyone I had just returned from a fabulous “holiday” and I wouldn’t care what people thought.
I recently sat down and revisited my letters from Simone. Immediately, I was taken back to my youth and experienced a total sense memory as I re-read her words. I remembered what these letters meant to me and how her correspondence made me feel connected to something bigger than my own world. It made me feel sad for younger generations because chances are they will never know this form of communication. To be honest, I have saved hundreds of emails that meant something to me at the time I received them yet I have never made the effort to review their content.
Virtual communication has made everything look the same because personalization simply doesn’t exist in an email, text or instant message. The way we archive our words to one another has changed forever and my greatest fear is that in the process, beautiful words will be lost.
At least Simone’s words are safe with me.
Her pen pal.