A Teacher-Postman: Exchanging student letters from India to America and back - Bhawani Singh (India, 2019/20)
I was going to America as a postman carrying letters from my students. The letters were written with the sheer curiosity of a child to know the unknown hearts of the people living miles and miles away.
Back home in India after two months, the first question that startled me was from one of my students. When every other acquaintance of mine was thinking what gift or souvenir I had brought for him or her, this student of mine asked for ‘the reply to her letter’ that she had written to an unknown American face. And yes this was the task I had given to my students, to write letters to American students without knowing where in America they lived? Or where they studied? Strange! Isn’t it, But not as strange as the history of exchanging letters, at least not as strange as MIB (message in a bottle) communications.
One of the tasks that was given to me as a Fulbright scholar was to bring letters from my students for the students in America, where I was supposed to co-teach with my host teacher. Although I was not informed about my host school, it was not a big deal, as any school would have served my purpose of getting exposure to American schools. But for students it was a bit weird. A letter without its address and addressee was something unusual for them. But again they wrote heaps of letters, poured their genuine emotions, feeling and love for their American counterpart, though unknown, without a face.
And I was going to America as a postman carrying those letters. The letters I was carrying were not of the same worth as historical letters, written by one great personality to another, may it be a letter from Gandhi to Hitler, Malcolm X to Martin Luther King Jr., or Grace Bedell to Abraham Lincoln. But one thing was sure, leaving apart history, the weight of the letters I was carrying was equal in message and emotion to the letters I mentioned above as all the letters were written without any personal motive but with the sheer curiosity of a child to know the unknown hearts of the people living miles and miles away.
In the digital era of e-mail and SMS, writing real authentic letters to someone in a foreign land was an interesting experiment for my students. It was somewhat similar to ‘penpal’ exchanges which I had done in my childhood, writing letters to people of different countries in the hope of getting a reply letter with the postal stamp of their country that sowed the seed of philately in me at a very young age. As I had to carry the letter personally, this element of the postal stamp as authentic artifact was missing from this experiment. So, to add authentic flavor, I gave my students Indian letters, postcards, and envelops to be used to write letters instead of plain paper, to give the glimpse of the Indian postal service to American students.
Now the million dollar question was what to write in the letter, the content. The students wanted some clues or suggestions from me as if it was a question asked in examination under guided composition. I wanted the imagination of my students to soar high so instead of guiding them what to write, I gave them free hand to pour their heart into the letter. And what a wonderful culminating product I had in my hand. Letters beautifully colored in tri-color to give nationalist flavor with the Indian map used as watermark; Letters telling about Indian culture, cuisine, tourist hot spots, and asking the same in return. Students wrote about American writers they have read in their course books and asked if they had read any Indian authors. Though each letter talked about the glorious history of India as cradle of human civilization, none forgot to mention the great achievements of America as a developed nation. The letters were full of humility.
It was my first day at Hamilton High School - the school of the braves. I was welcomed by my host teacher Ms. Reena Gonzolvis. The setting of the school to me seemed exactly like my own back home in India – remote, pristine, rural. I was eager to meet the students and wanted to execute my work of a postman by delivering to the American students what I had brought for them – the letters. Ms Reena introduced me and set the stage with her eloquent style for the ‘letter reading session’. Contrary to my belief that people in America would not be interested in reading the real letters from some unknown land and unknown faces, the students showed rapt attention and curiosity. One by one the letters were read and it seemed to me as if the writer of those letters, my students, were having a tête-à-tête with their American counterparts in the same class. The most praised letters were those written in vernacular (Hindi): I translated it trying to keep the emotions intact. The beautifully calligraphed letters decorated with the Indian tri-colour as watermark were displayed on the board in the main corridor for the other students with the caption ‘Letters from Indian Students….’. Coincidentally it was the day when American President Donald Trump was in Ahmedabad India to strengthen the bond between the two nations. Ms. Reena told her students to write back and for the next whole week, each day I was handed over the letters for my Indian students. The letters hand written, typed, decorated; I was tempted to read them, but I resisted it and vowed to read these letters in a similar fashion by organizing a ‘letter reading session’ for my students. Back home the COVID19 scenario spoilt the game, as the schools were shut and students online. I organized an ‘online letter reading session’ on Google Meet and what startled me most was that when I opened the letters I found similar love and affection of American students poured in those letters.
Back to the question that startled me: “What about my reply letter, Sir”. When I opened the reply letter I was unable to understand even a single letter as it was written in Spanish as the girl who had written it was a Mexican migrant. But the curves of the letter, the texture of the paper, the essence of the ink spoke millions of emotions that directly touched my students. The circle had come fully around, the reply to letters from India written in Hindi was given in Spanish – both letters difficult for students to understand but were priceless. Today that letter in Spanish is framed and displayed at the entrance of the school with the caption ‘Letter from American student - Script alien, but emotions native’.
As a postman I had executed my duty with utmost sincerity.
Mr. Bhawani Singh teaches English to grade 11 and 12 students at JNV Sirohi in the state of Rajasthan, India. He has two Masters degree in History and English. He has 20 years of teaching experience. He has international exposure working with Thinkquest, IBM reinventing education and Microsoft Project Shiksha. He loves innovation and experimentation in education. As a 2020 Fulbright TEA Scholar at CSU Chico, he has worked on new pedagogical strategies to teach and design curriculum for English as second language. He loves travelling and as a blogger he has written about his experiences as a Fulbrighter in his upcoming book.