In her first letter to Jazmine, a 10th-grader at Amundsen High School in Chicago, Vanessa shares her nickname (“Vane”), says she loves animals, and briskly mentions that her father passed away.
“I hope you and I have a lot in common,” she tells her new pen pal. “At first, I didn’t want new friends because I’m scared of talking to people. I hope I get to know you better.”
The correspondence between Jazmine and Vanessa, an eighth-grader at Emiliano Zapata Academy, is one of over 25 exchanges between students at these schools documented in P.S. You Sound Like Someone I Can Trust, a book published this past summer by the nonprofit writing and tutoring center, 826CHI. To create the book, which is dominated by the students’ letters and merely contextualized by the perspectives of adult facilitators, 826CHI and classroom teachers matched pen pals by interest, sparked the letter-writing process with specific prompts, and offered extensive editing assistance.
According to Maria Villarreal, the director of programs at 826CHI, the letter is an “archaic form” for teenage correspondence. My own students often show that email is over, too. Texting could be next. As demonstrated by academic research and investigations into teenagers’ digital lives, thanks to ubiquitous image-heavy social media platforms, the average kid doesn’t need to write (or even talk) to socialize. For many teenagers today, the concept of pen pals is a novel one, as are letters as a form of communication—a means of matching thought to written language. It’s also a rare opportunity to connect intimately with a peer: While students today may appear constantly connected to the world around them because of the gadgets they wield, they’re often isolated. In Chicago, the third-most-segregated large city in the country, where new schools only reinforce their racial and socioeconomic isolation, kids on the South or West Side rarely, if ever, venture downtown.