388. Pen Pals/Keypals

Many children I’ve known have tried to have pen pals, and some have succeeded. In the past, it’s taken a kind of dedication that, for some children, may no longer be necessary. If you relate to someone only through the mail, conversations can be difficult – especially if, after several weeks or months, you receive a letter that begins, “I know what you mean.” Your pen pal may know what you mean, but after all that time, you may not have any idea what you’ve said. And so conversations among pen pals tend not to last.
E-mail is revolutionizing the concept of a pen pal. I have a friend in Italy whom I’ve never met. In fact, the chances are that we never will meet. But we’ve
had some significant conversations through e-mail. In fact, come to think of it, I haven’t heard from Maurizio in a long time. But I send him every article I write, so Maurizio, how are you? How are Mariangela and Giulia? I still have your pictures up on my wall, and if I end up able to buy the condiminium I’m trying to buy, I’ll put them up there, too.
When teachers try to get children to have pen pals, there’s a variety of possible reasons. First of all, a pen pal can be a reason to want to write – especially if the pen pal writes back promptly. And having a pen pal can be a way of learning about another culture, and for some children, practicing another language. There was one year I tried to establish pen pal relationships among children all over the world. Children in my class wrote to addresses in Germany, Japan, Mexico, Australia, and more. I hoped to build a pen pal society on which the sun never set. But children like instant gratification, and when they didn’t get immediate responses from their pen pals, they lost interest.
As computers become more and more common in schools, pen pals (or “keypals,” as cybernetic pen pals are called) may become a bigger part of school curriculum. I’m excited about the potential. Gandhi said “If we want to build world peace, we shall have to begin with the children.” Maybe e-mail will be one road to international understanding. Of course, this dream does depend on children around the world having access to computers, and that will take a while. But just imagine a world full of people who communicate with each other! As for the different languages, the computers will take care of that. They’ll translate messages.
Are you thinking I’ve gone off the deep end? Well, maybe I have, a little. But it doesn’t do any harm to dream, and lots of good, practical ideas started out as dreams. A friend of mine recently sat on an airplane and e-mailed a message to people around the country. When I received the message, I looked up to the sky. I’m keypals with a teacher in Wisconsin (Hi, Leona!), some of my former students (Hi, Rachel! Hi, Nathan!), and many more. And this year I had a cybernetic birthday party. I introduced all my keypals to each other. And there was no mess to clean up afterwards.

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