My son Ethan came home from third grade not long ago bursting with excitement about a new development at school: he had been matched with a pen pal.
Hugo is a 9-year-old boy who lives in the south of France. He likes dogs and Legos and dreams of one day “owning a large yacht.” He sent a photo of himself, a handsome blond in a well-made button-down shirt, standing stiffly against a classroom wall. Ethan wrote his new friend’s name—HUGO—on the picture and taped it up over his desk.
I wish I could have bottled my son’s enthusiasm for a class trip to the post office— the post office!—to mail off the first batch of letters to Hugo and his classmates. You’d think he was actually sipping champagne and nibbling brie on an Air France flight to Nice. Oh, to be 8.
I was secretly thrilled about Hugo’s arrival on the scene, and not just because my son was so happy. What I felt, quite honestly, was something akin to relief. I was reassured that for all his easy access to iPads and YouTube, his familiarity with GPS and the fact that he only watches television On Demand, Ethan could still be genuinely excited by such decidedly low-tech things as a letter and a trip to the post office.
I’m not a Luddite by any stretch. I heartily embrace the power of new technology and use it enthusiastically. Every time I speak the words “Call Mom” while driving— and it works!—I feel as though I’m living in a real-life episode of “The Jetsons.” And while nothing makes you sound quite like a cranky old person than any variation of a “kids these days” rant, I will confess to being uneasy that the sheer breadth of information (literally) at our kids’ fingertips, coursing through their world at such blinding speed, threatens to render them different from us in some fundamental way—one that goes far deeper than their lack of Dorothy Hamill haircuts and crocheted ponchos. I worry that living in an era of instant, effortless information may be robbing our kids of something essential, something we learned growing up in a world whose secrets unfolded so much more slowly and laboriously, one World Book Encyclopedia entry and pen pal letter at a time.
Long before cellphones and the Internet, my own third grade classroom on Long Island had an unassuming shoebox filled with index cards listing free things students could “write away for”: recipes, travel brochures, free samples and the like. It’s a concept so charmingly antiquated it makes me feel as though I grew up in the Mesozoic era.
And like all card-carrying elementary schoolers in the 1970s, we, too, had pen pals. In November 1978, I received the first of many letters pockmarked with Korean stamps and enclosed in an Airmail envelope with a telltale blue and red border. “Dear my new friend,” Jin-Hwan wrote by way of introduction in his impeccable handwriting, “I was very glad to receive your address and name from my friend. … I want a pen pal long time.” Subsequent letters began “Dear Mendelsohn,” “Dear Junnifer,” “Dear my penfriend,” and finally, hilariously, “Hey, girl.”
In his letters, Jin-Hwan told me that his favorite food was kimchi and that he wore a uniform to school. He liked collecting stamps and matchbooks and once won first place in a speech competition. He confessed that “All Americans look alike,” tried to teach me a few simple phrases in Korean and asked earnestly if I wanted to be a “professional woman.” One of my simple queries—“Do you like living in Korea?”—unwittingly insulted Jin-Hwan’s nationalistic pride. “I want to emphasize that Korea is not to be looked down upon,” he wrote. “My country is more beautiful and better than your country.”
Over time, Jin-Hwan became increasingly enamored of the Mormon missionaries who had arrived in his town, frequently proclaiming his newfound belief that the Book of Molmon [sic] was the “one true of the God” and peppering me with persistent questions about whether Mormonism might be a good fit for me. Perhaps that’s why I stopped writing to him after receiving one final letter with an endearing postscript: “Don’t forget me and my country Korea,” Jin-Hwan wrote. “I just love you, girl.”
I still remember how exciting it was to see one of Jin-Hwan’s letters waiting for me when I came home from school. And as I read them now, more than 30 years later, what strikes me most is the incredible sense of anticipation they betray, even in broken English. “I sent you a letter after a long time,” he pleaded in one. “What was the reason for you don’t send me a letter? I wanted your letter for a long time.”
It’s precisely that anticipation I want Ethan to experience: the nervous excitement of waiting for a response and imagining the possibilities it might contain. I want him to know what it’s like to have to wait to get an answer to his questions, so that he has time to brew a million more before his curiosity is sated.
The truth is there’s probably not much Hugo will reveal about life in France that I couldn’t find out in 10 seconds on my iPhone. I could probably take Ethan to Google maps and walk him, virtually, through Hugo’s neighborhood. I could order books about France from Amazon and have them delivered instantly to my iPad. I could have the two of them FaceTime.
But I’m perfectly happy to have Hugo remain just a little mysterious for now, happy that for once my son has to put some effort into getting information. Because ultimately, it’s not just about life in France that I want this experience to teach him.
Jennifer Mendelsohn lives in Mount Washington with her husband and their two boys. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, People, Slate and USA Weekend. She also serves as one of Us Weekly’s Fashion Police “Top Cops.”