Recently I tweeted a memory I had of my penpal when I was 12 and I was astonished when today it’s so far had 80 likes. I know it’s not viral, humour me. I had two penpals. The one from the Philippines is in the tweet:
To this day I cannot bring myself to open it, because what’s the point? Anyway, I only want it for the envelope with the two words which remind us of our mortality. The other penpal I could not track down though I wish I could. Her name was Jacqueline Moutter and she was from Newcastle upon Tyne.
Can you still have a penpal in the digital age? Yes. Especially if you are a tween like I was. It is the perfect age for discovering there is actually a world beyond your school, Netflix and your family. You could have a friend abroad for these benefits:
1/ It’s good for your general knowledge, history and geography
The whole appeal of writing to strangers is learning about their culture and them. I learned so much from Jackie about her family and her life growing up in Tyne and Wear. I used to wonder, “wear what”? as I thought it was a verb. I had to look up world maps, the encyclopaedia, kings and queens, English food, Smash Hits. There was no internet in those days. Everything required research and reading. Conversation hinged on day to day existence. I wish I could find her again and reconnect with her. There is no way to do this as she is not even on the internet and she probably changed her name as per the culture here. We lost touch. But I still remember she liked Madness, the band.
2/ It encourages slow living.
Anybody can type an e-mail in three minutes but if you actually take time to find paper, envelopes, pens, write, get it weighed, buy stamps, it shows the weight of an entire thought process. You do mean to send the letter. You cannot bear to leave it in draft mode. You and someone else have to consider the blow by blow detail of your lives, in order to live slow. What to share and what not to? What does self-editing mean? Is your life being questioned? Is it mundane or going at breakneck speed or neither? That is the procedure of letter writing. You have to think before you put down a single sentence.
3/ It improves reading, writing and comprehension.
Naturally as it’s not school, you would pay attention more. It is more like an extension of reality. The pen is mightier than etc. It is someone’s handwriting. The penpal becomes your ideal reader (IR) and you start to write to please them, to suit their tastes. I did not realise this but it was the start of all the trouble – becoming a writer. You and your penpal become very good at editing, both your thoughts and writing. Because you know you cannot bore people with what you had for breakfast in an entire page. You can only do this on social media where both the words and images disappear within seconds because the feed always updates. You need not concentrate on anything. Nothing will happen if you don’t even read a post or a feed. But a letter is forever. It will stay folded in your drawer until you unfold it, and one day until it tears at the joints where it once folded because it is old. But it is still there.
4/ It makes you go out and do interesting things
You end up doing interesting things so that you can write to him or her about them. No longer is sitting in front of the telly and eating pizza all weekend for many weekends the aim of the exercise. No. You will find new buildings to explore. New books to talk about. New characters of interest in school. New bands. You will be inventive and being a child you will be penniless so your new activities will involve some kind of imagination, ideas and creativity rather than spending your parents’ money. You will take photos, draw pictures or make light and cheap things to send them like mini paintings, cards, bracelets or badges. You start doing “fan mail” because they are your first fans.
5/ It makes you curious about the rest of the world
Enough about the penpal. You will eventually become aware that there is a whole world out there that is beyond your slum, parents, siblings, relatives and friends in school. It helped me escape. There was one particularly annoying girl who kept bullying me as I was a cheerleader (haha), albeit a terrible one. I don’t know how I made it into the team during the rounds of auditions. I fancied sports and music so it seemed like cheerleading was a perfect choice. She was the head cheerleader who enjoyed ridiculing me and taking apart the pompoms I handmade with my mum, amongst other cruel things. Writing to my penpals helped me forgive that small-minded idiot and even feel strong and laugh about her. My penpals also were kind enough to reassure me that the bully was probably just jealous, and my secrets were safe because my penpals were a plane ride and not a bus ride from my school. My penpals became my cheerleaders. Writing letters made me tolerant and mature. Why should anybody be exactly like you? There is so much kindness, love, unity, culture and diversity and plain simple friendliness in the world. It made me want to travel and see it. And I did.