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
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.
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.
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