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Dear Future Me: For 26 years, NJ teacher had his 6th-graders write letters to their future selves. This year he got to see them opened

Asher Lehrer-Small | November 18, 2020

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Graduating Maplewood, NJ seniors read and reflect on letters that they wrote in sixth grade to their future selves (Garage by HP via YouTube)

New Jersey this year missed out on prom, college tours, and the usual pomp and circumstance of graduation because of the pandemic.

But thanks to a devoted local middle school teacher, these 12th-graders retained one rite of passage very unique to their suburban town: reading a letter from their sixth-grade selves that took them back to both an earlier identity and a time when the world was not in the grip of a deadly virus.

For over 25 years, Maplewood, New Jersey teacher Richard Palmgren has asked his sixth-grade students to pen letters to their future 18-year-old selves. (Courtesy of Richard Palmgren)

“This isn’t just … a creative writing assignment, you’re actually traveling from the past to the future,” says teacher Richard Palmgren. “You’ve taken like a snapshot of your past and you’re presenting it to your future self.”

For over 25 years, Palmgren has asked his sixth-graders to compose letters to their future 18-year-old selves. Letter writers describe their life as a middle schooler, chronicle current events, and share some wishes for what lies ahead. After students seal, stamp, and address their messages, Palmgren locks the envelopes safely away for six years to be sent back just a few weeks before high school graduation.

For over 25 years, Maplewood, New Jersey teacher Richard Palmgren has asked his sixth-grade students to pen letters to their future 18-year-old selves. (Courtesy of Richard Palmgren)

Normally, no one but the letter writers themselves lay eyes on these time-bending documents but this year for the first time, the ritual was captured in two short documentaries entitled Dear Future Me. Produced by Redglass Pictures and Garage by HP, the films show the sixth-graders writing their letters earmarked for 2026 and the seniors opening theirs penned back in 2014.

It would be a moment heavy with significance in any year, but in 2020 it carried the students’ worries over COVID-19 and their hopes for progress toward racial justice.

“By the time you open this, I hope they’ve found a cure for coronavirus, so I can hug my grandparents, and not worry that I’m going to give it to them,” a sixth-grade boy with curly red hair reads plaintively from his letter.

“I branched out, made more friends, but then there was a virus and I didn’t really talk to them anymore,” notes one girl, her voice cracking at the end.

Another student reads, “I hope there’s a lot less racist people in this world—if even better, none.”

Still, full of doodles, lamentations over the loss of recess time, and nervousness about middle school, their letters retained aspects of “normal” sixth-grade life and silver linings from quarantine. One boy enjoyed bike rides around the neighborhood. A girl had built an “awesome fort” in her backyard.

Doodles accompanied paragraphs in the letters that the class of 2026 wrote to their future selves. (Garage by HP via YouTube)

This year’s high school grads opened letters that were free from pandemic-related worries, but fraught with other life events: their parents divorce, an undiagnosed learning disability, shyness and insecurity. Their sixth-grade selves talked about their sports: lacrosse, karate, gymnastics, tennis, and basketball. Their college aspirations: Harvard, Stanford, and Duke. Populating the margins of their missives were smiley faces, aliens, and even a lipstick print with the label “baby lips.” One stuck a $20 bill into his letter, knowing what a sweet find that would be six years later.

As middle schoolers do, they also talked about relationships.

One girl, reading, “I hope we haven’t given up on our hope to marry…” trailed off and looked up at the camera. “Oh dear, no! Let’s just say I got over this crush.”

“Who is your girlfriend?” read another student. “Um, I actually have a boyfriend now,” he explained. “I know myself a lot better now…. I think he’d be happy with how he turned out.”

Reflecting on the letters, the elder teens saw their self-growth.

“[The letter] opened up a lot of things that I felt that I completely forgot about. I really hated the person that I was in sixth grade. I didn’t like the way my nose looked. I didn’t like my skin. I didn’t like my body. I even told myself ‘I don’t wanna be Black anymore’ and I hated myself for it,” said one girl, thinking back. “And that’s why probably she was so intense in that letter because she’s like ‘I need you to change.’ But myself now is telling her ‘Definitely, no. Like, you’re perfect the way you are.”

It was the depth of reflection that moved Palmgren most when he saw it on film.

“They kept referring to themselves as if the person was standing there, as if their sixth-grade self was right in front of them,” he said, marveling. “We all need to have our past selves with us. You know, to walk with us, to be comforting, to remind us of who we were.”

Over more than two decades, Palmgren estimates he’s led 1,500 to 1,600 students through the Dear Future Me exercise, sending letters overseas to Europe and as far away as Australia to ensure that loop got closed. In this year when high school seniors have missed out on so many important milestones, Palmgren hopes the messages from their past selves can provide some solace.

“I think the letters gave them a sense of security. Almost like having, you know, ‘Here’s myself from a more innocent time,’ and to kind of like, give people the hope that things will be better again,” he said.

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