Stalled in Nostalgia Remembering Pen Pals Tyler Vendetti

In 5th grade, my teacher assigned each student a pen pal from my school’s “sister classroom” in Pennsylvania. Every week, we were told to write a one-page letter to send to our designated match and at the end of the year, we would receive a video from the other class that presented each child and their idiosyncrasies. My pen pal’s idiosyncrasy was apparently digging for gold, and not in the cool, adventurous, let’s-traverse-the-seven-seas-in-search-of-buried-treasure sort of way, but rather the if-I-reach-far-enough-up-my-nose-I-can-touch-my-brain sort of way. This fact became blatantly obvious to me, not in one of our private letter exchanges, but in the final video. To be sure, my classmates succeeded in pointing it out every 5 seconds. I was mortified. This girl, this 9-year-old girl that I had entrusted with my food-stained, notebook paper message, the one that I had spent at least 20 minutes composing, had just embarrassed me in front of my entire fifth grade class. It’s like the trust we had built meant nothing.

Such was my only pen pal experience. Yet, for some reason, the idea of a pen pal is still enticing to me. It’s like some primitive form of networking, one without the whole professional aspect that comes with things like LinkedIn and alum databases. So, last year, I took to the Internet to explore pen pal options for “grown ups” (just vomited a little bit; on second thought, lump me into the “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” category, please). Upon finding dozens of pen pal sites, I immediately signed up for about five of them. (I’ll keep my username private but I can assure you it had nothing to do with kittens or how much I adore them.)

And then I ran into a problem. The organization of the online pen pal site that I stumbled upon made me feel like I had signed up for some dating service. Within hours, I had messages along the lines of “Hey! I’m from this very exotic country and I have suave hair and you look cute so let’s chat sometime? Insert suggestive winky face of your choosing.” As I quickly began erasing any trace of my existence on these pages, I started to wonder whether having a legitimate pen pal nowadays was even a feasible option. For one, sites like Facebook and Twitter make talking to people from across the globe almost commonplace. One of my Twitter followers the other day messaged me from Italy. Another, from Australia. The fact that, at any moment, I could communicate with a human being from a completely different continent boggles my mind. It’s like repeatedly finding out where babies come from without the loss of innocence or emotional trauma. (Does that analogy work here? Probably not.)

Then again, writing letters has a certain charm to it. The pen-to-paper process possesses a sort of nostalgic quality, the same one which makes me hesitant to adopt the e-book craze or switch out notebooks for my laptop in college classes. The physical writing itself can add another dimension to the piece. The slant in your pen pal’s “M” or the way they cross their “T”s may seem trivial but I think it shows the human-ness behind the words themselves. Reading the same letter in Times New Roman font could make them seem more like a machine than a person. On a computer, sometimes we forget we’re talking to people.

Writing on paper can also seem like a hassle in an age of technology. Up until middle school, I wrote all of my essays on paper. Classes would teach the art of cursive and would drill students every week on what direction the tail in the letter “a” was supposed to point. Once middle school started, though, cursive lessons were replaced with “Keyboarding” classes, miserable, hour-long sessions filled with tiring pinky stretches (you don’t realize how far away the Q is until you’re forced to hit it 50 times in a row) and books filled with phrases like “The quirky xenophobic zebra pranced near the quiet rhino playing the xylophone” that you had to type until your fingers bled. Kids in my elementary school now don’t learn cursive. In a few years, they might not even know what it is. So why attempt to revive the art of letter writing if everyone else deems it to be obsolete? Why go through the hassle of writing, packaging, and mailing a letter that, on social media, would take a matter of seconds?

All of this I guess leads me to my ultimate question: can adults have pen pals, traditional, old-fashion, pencil-to-paper pen pals, and not have it be weird? Can I find some program that lets me contact a 19-year-old girl from England and talk to her only through letters? Or should pen pals be left to children? While, in some ways, I believe the latter, my hopes of finding a pen pal that doesn’t pick her nose on camera keep me optimistic. Maybe I can find one that digs for actual gold, too. A girl can dream, right?

Image via Shutterstock

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  1. I’ve been writing letters since I was maybe six or seven. My pen pals have ran the gamut, from old lunch ladies I met at camp, to Jews for Jesus, to authors I tracked down at the local library. I’m 22 and I still write letters to several friends. I even teach workshops on the art of letter writing. It’s a lost art, but it’s very much still in motion amongst some of us. It ain’t weird girl. :)

  2. I have four pen pals! Each from a different country. All of which I met through a website last year. I also totally thought it was weird at first and was messaged by weird guys, but by changing my privacy settings was able to find four really great girls all around my age who also wanted a normal pen pals. Now every time I check my mail box and am greeted by a cute envelope from another country I am very happy that I cared less about the weirdness and more about the experience I was going to gain.

  3. I have a pen-pal. I live in California and she lives in Texas. We met through blogging and decided to be pen pals. I think it’s fun! I don’t care how obsolete snail mail gets. There will never be anything quite like opening a handwritten letter from a friend.

  4. That’s a great post. I may never have a penpal before, but I really enjoy sending hand written letters to my friends and I absolutely love receive letters from them too. I remember when I was a kid I asked my mom to write me letter at night and put them in a “mailbox” next to my bedroom or when my grandma to send me letters ans postcard wherever she was.

  5. Hi – I just wanted to say that I have a pen pal. We “met” on tumblr because we both were sad and listening to the same band. We messaged back and forth and then decided we had enough in common and not in common that we wanted to send each other mix CDs. We’ve been pen pals for almost two years. He’s from Illinois and I live in Pennsylvania. I like to think we’re pretty good friends. Part of the beauty of it is that we incorporate facebook into our pen pal relationship. So I’ve seen pictures and things but we’ll probably never meet. He’s introduced me to some great bands and always makes me feel like my life isn’t trivial. – So I encourage you to find a pen pal, because it’s wonderful. – Thanks for writing this piece!

  6. My husband is in the military and often we have to go months only communicating through letters. Its not my favorite thing obviously but there is something truly special about the hand written letters that we both LOVE. Because of that I often write friends from back home as a more personal way to stay in touch. My point, I’m 20 and I have several penpals that I know. Maybe try that first? Then you can open it up to your readers?
    xx Samantha