P.S. Write back soon ok

Pen Pals. I love that phrase; I think it’s very adorable. Unfortunately I think the concept is great in theory but it’s always so awkward in reality, especially in the cases of school-issued pen pals. In fifth grade we were required to write to the neighboring town’s fifth grade class, almost entirely populated by recent Laotian immigrants. I can only assume it was supposed to be an exchange where both pals learned a great deal about different cultures and lifestyles but when you don’t know someone and don’t know what their grasp of English is it gets difficult. It’s hard enough to try and get to know someone by blindly asking them a few broad questions. Plus when Americans, or maybe just ignorant people, don’t think someone understands what they’re saying in a new language they tend to speak louder. But there is no way you can speak louder in a letter so you have to look stupid in other ways, by using very simple language.

“Hi! How are you? My name is Liz. Do you like Madonna? I like Madonna. Vogue is a very good song. My brother is Dave and my sister is Gretchen. My brother and I wrestle for the remote. Do you have a brother? Do you have a remote? Ok, Bye.”

As a fifth grader who is trying to be sensitive to the needs of a pen pal who may or may not know what you are saying, you become vague, are at a loss for anything intelligent to say and ultimately sound like an ass. However I would like to note that if I were writing to a Laotian pen pal today, this letter would still be relevant, except that I would replace “brother” with “boyfriend”. In college in Massachusetts, I volunteered to be a pen pal to two kids at a local elementary school. One of my pals was a girl named Jeanie. The first letter I received from Jeanie was fascinating mostly due to her description of herself.

“Hi How are you? Let me tell you about myself I have hazel eyes and I am tall for my age and I have blonde hair. I am white. I am 10 years old. My favorite bands are Hanson and Backstreet Boys. My favorite singers are Taylor Hanson and Nick Carter. Do you like stamps and stickers? Jeanie. P.S. write back soon ok”

I know she was only ten, but honestly, nothing about the rest of her letter screamed anything BUT “white”. Redundant? Yes. Bad person? No. Eventually I realized that the content of Jeanie’s letters only ever consisted of answers to the questions I had asked and I would get letters that were thoroughly confusing until I realized I had asked her what she was going to be for Halloween and that’s why her letter read:

“Hi How are you Liz. I was an Arabian Princess. Two sisters and two brothers. My hobby is drawing. Thanks for the stickers. Jeanie.”

Short and sweet I guess, but I am a girl and I could relate to her. I liked to draw and listen to boy bands too. Unfortunately though my second pen pal was Nigel. My correspondence with him only lasted one letter and, hear me out, I know you can’t really ever tell what someone’s tone is from the written word but here, I just got a bad vibe from this guy. The CAPS are mine to emphasize what an asshole this kid was/probably still is:

“Dear Liz, My name is Nigel. We have gym and music, art. Yes I play sports. My hobbies are going to war reenactments, drawing, collecting bullet shells and shotgun shells. And my other hobby is to camp in a wigwam long house in my back yard. Last week I was in a play called School House Rock it was fun. Have YOU ever been in a play in front of the whole city like I have? Yes I do have a favorite group in fact I have MANY. I am really good at dancing to ALL kinds of music. I am from Tacoma Washington, where did YOU come from? Yes, for Halloween I dressed as a Confederate Soldier. What were YOU for Halloween? Write soon, your pen pal, Nigel”

First of all, I never realized what a hotbed of Confederate action Massachusetts and/or Tacoma was and second of all, this kid thinks he’s hot shit, huh? Let’s not dance around this issue, a friendship between Nigel and I was not meant to be, but he was so fascinating to me. I don’t know why I never got a second letter from Nigel but I saved his first one because I was so intrigued. Who were this kids parents? Why were they letting him play with bullet shells and dress as a racist for Halloween? And exactly what kinds of music did he dance to?
I will never know because, just like all pen pal relationships, it never progressed far enough to get really personal. I guess maybe I have a negative view of pen pal-ism because the only really fascinating pen pal I ever had left me with no closure. Maybe I wish I had more time to change Nigel, to show him that there could be life without re-enactments, or at least I could show him “Glory” so he could learn what side he should be on. But then again, maybe Nigel kept all my letters and wondered why I only ever asked superficial questions. Maybe he’s been analyzing his own letters by asking who is this idiot college student? Why does she care so much about what I’m doing for the holidays? And why does she keep talking about Madonna so much? Who knows? Anyway. Write Soon. Your Friend, Liz

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