When Eliza Ramirez’s eighth-grade students at Emiliano Zapata Academy in Little Village learned that they’d be spending the fall and winter corresponding with a class of tenth graders at Amundsen High School in Ravenswood and that the letters would be collected into a book published by 826CHI, a nonprofit writing center, they were skeptical. What was the point of writing letters, they wondered, in this marvelous age of text messages and Snapchat? How could ink on paper possibly compare to the magic of cat filters?
The tenth graders weren’t really into it, either. It took a little while for the charms of letter writing to become apparent. The first exchanges, initiated by the eighth graders, were collections of facts (ages, neighborhoods, numbers of siblings, favorite foods and activities) and awkward questions (what were the tenth graders’ favorite foods and activities?). But, gradually, with some prompting from their teachers and 826 volunteers, things began to change.
“They realized that to get their partner to open up, they had to open up first,” explained Maria Villarreal, 826’s director of programs, at the book’s release party on Monday, June 12. The book’s title reflects that shift: P.S. You Sound Like Someone I Can Trust, a line taken verbatim from a letter from eighth grader Vanessa Cruz to her letter-writing partner, Jazmine Rodriguez.
Cruz was one of the students who read at the release party, which took place at Ovation, an event space in West Town roughly equidistant between the two schools. Through their correspondence, she and Rodriguez had discovered that they both grew up in families led by single mothers; Rodriguez’s father had left before she was born, while Cruz’s had died when she was a baby.
“I know we are just getting to know each other,” she read, “but I hope you know that I’m here for you. Like you said, I know how it feels to have no dad. I’ve got to admit seeing Mom suffer taking care of us is hard. . . . After reading your letter, I knew I should keep going, knowing he is happy wherever he is. Like you kept going on, without your father.”
Not all the letters ventured into such deep territory. Ivan Perez and Mauricio Muñoz read their letters together, which began with Perez asking, “Are you into school? Probably not. Do you draw? Or do you just respect people who draw? Do you think you are better than me?” To which Muñoz replied, “Well of course I think I’m better than you. What a silly question to ask. I am older and have more life experience in things or situations!”
The letter-writing project began when 826’s publications manager, Abi Humber, read Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice columns. Humber was struck by how Strayed was able to form an emotional connection with her readers by sharing her own memories and feelings, described in precise detail. These were skills, Humber and her fellow 826 staffers agreed, that would be good for young writers to develop. They also thought it would be nice for kids from different parts of the city to get to know each other.
With the help of a questionnaire, the 826 staff tried to figure out which of the 62 participants would make the most compatible letter-writing partners (the term the students overwhelmingly preferred to “pen pal”). The writing began in mid-November. Once a week, 826 volunteers would visit Ramirez’s class at Zapata and Tanya Nguyen and Eric Markowitz’s classes at Amundsen and guide the students through letter writing, providing prompts if the correspondence didn’t develop naturally.
“Some of them would write pages and pages,” said Ramirez. “We talked about what to include and not to include and how to prioritize what matters.”
The students knew from the beginning that their letters would be read not only by their letter-writing partners but also by the 826 staff and the complete strangers who’d pick up the book. Their teachers were impressed by their bravery and willingness to share anyway.
“It’s important to stop and let kids express who they are,” said Nguyen. “This is what’s important, that they open up and give a piece of the most important things about themselves. The students created a beautiful thing.”
In their letters, many students said they were excited about meeting their partners in person, but at the release party, shyness took over, despite the excitement of pizza, DJs, a photo booth, and a food truck (Chicago Lunchbox, owned by Nguyen and her husband). The eighth graders overcompensated with silly ad-libs, while the sophomores tried to look cool.
Tenth grader Sohail Nazari had exchanged stories with his partner, eighth grader Inocente Dircio, about poetry, meaningful encounters with strangers, and adventures scaling buildings. Getting to know Dircio this way was an amazing experience, Nazari said. But when the two finally met, surrounded by their respective friends and teachers with phones poised to capture the moment, the best they could do was exchange an awkward hug, shaking hands and then leaning forward for a quick shoulder bump. Perhaps there was too much surrounding noise for them to connect in person the way they had on paper. Within minutes, they had gone their separate ways.
Still, Nazari said he was looking forward to writing more letters, maybe this time to people he already knew.
The letter-writing program won’t be duplicated; 826 changes its book project every year. Still, Villarreal said she hoped more kids would have the experience of writing letters to new and unmet friends elsewhere in the city. “We got students to think about how rich their lives are,” she said, “and to open up to their letter-writing partners.”
P.S. You Sound Like Someone I Can Trust is available at 826CHI, 1276 N. Milwaukee, or online.