For the past 20 years, DJ Anardi and his high school buddies often wondered when a certain blast from the past would land in their mailboxes.
About a month ago, just around his 36th birthday, Mr. Anardi’s arrived.
“Hey you good-looking guy, how is your life?” read the wobbly printed letters scrawled on three-hole punched lined paper, written by a 15-year-old to his much-older self.
Erin & DJ Anardi“Hey you good-looking guy...” DJ Anardi holding the letter he wrote to himself in Grade 9.
He wanted to go to college and play football, it read. Instead, he built a career at a steel mill. He wanted three or four children. He now has two boys. He was dating another girl when he put pen to paper back in the early 1990s, but harboured a crush on a girl named Erin.
Today, Erin is his wife and the mother of his children.
For the past four decades, a Saskatchewan high school English teacher has kept his commitment to thousands of former students by mailing them all a handwritten letter they had written to themselves as high school freshmen, to be read by their eyes only when they reached adulthood.
The 72-year-old retired teacher has spent countless hours tracking down students who’ve long grown up, moved away from home and married, using social media and good old-fashioned detective work. This year especially, former students’ Facebook news feeds have been awash with people delighted — and surprised — to actually get the letters.
“I think our society now is a society of non-commitment,” said Bruce Farrer, who started students writing letters to themselves at the beginning of his teaching career in 1961. “We say we’re going to do something, whether it’s in a marriage, or with our kids or maybe even with our organizations we join, and some little thing ticks us off and we think ‘Enough of that, I’m walking out.’ … I think it’s important to have a sense of commitment, and maybe in a minor way, the kids see I value that.”
Mr. Farrer, who spent much of his career at Bert Fox Community High School in Fort Qu’Appelle, a town of about 2,000 people about an hour northeast of Regina, simply wanted to encourage his students to write. They would submit their letters into one of two separate piles — one too personal for the teacher to read, the other approved for his gaze.
Students weren’t allowed to seal the envelopes because Mr. Farrer needed to see that they indeed wrote the full amount. That’s how they passed the assignment. One year, a student sealed his and insisted he’d written the full 10 pages. When Mr. Farrer opened it, only one page was complete, the other nine left blank. Instead of admonishing the student, he said perhaps there had been a mistake, and could he bring the remaining pages the next morning?
“John must’ve stayed up until midnight — he had the nine pages,” Mr. Farrer said. “It would have been sent back by now, I think. I’ve never had the opportunity to talk to him about that, but I’m sure he remembers.”
He keeps the letters in five bins at his working farm outside of town, which he tends to in the summers. In the winter’s slower months, he brings the letters to Bert Fox school and licks every envelope. This happens, of course, after the necessary investigative work to track down his former pupils. Sometimes it’s easy — their parents still live in town. But he’s used Canada 411, looked up relatives, even joined Facebook himself and cast out lines. He’ll also use the expertise and connections of people in town — a former student, for example, who’s now a real estate agent and knows when people move away.
“They’re just excited to get [their letters] back. And they’re [often] amazed by their predictions,” Mr. Farrer said. One Grade 9 was obsessed with ABBA and dreamed of marrying a “beautiful blond Swede.” Twenty years later, the young man had moved to Sweden and done just that.
‘I think some of them are embarrassed by how immature they were, but when you’re 14, you’re immature’
Not everyone is so pleased to revisit their confessions, their big dreams and details of their teenage lives decades later.
“I think some of them are embarrassed by how immature they were, but when you’re 14, you’re immature,” Mr. Farrer said. “And some of them don’t want to show it to their spouses or their parents.”
Sometimes the student is no longer alive to receive their letter back — a situation Mr. Farrer has faced many times. Students have died by suicide, in car accidents and from illness. This is the only scenario in which Mr. Farrer will read the letters pegged as personal, before sending. It helps him determine whether the letter would be a comfort to family, or simply add to the pain.
Mr. Farrer has been met with suspicion and hung up on many times by relatives he’s contacted in order to get a simple address, but never by a student.
“I hope other teachers do it,” said Mr. Anardi, who remembers throwing himself into the project despite his poor spelling and grammar skills. He still has many of the same high school friends. And he still has the same sly sense of humour present in the letter, in which he admits to crafting during math class.
At the bottom of his letter, Mr. Anardi wrote that if he ever received the letter 20 years later, as promised (many of the students were skeptical), he would have to call Mr. Farrer to tell him thanks.
“I’d forgotten to do that a month ago,” Mr. Anardi said Tuesday. “I’m going to call him tonight.”