I’m an enthusiastic collector of notes given to me over the years, and I keep them in files named after my children or one I call “Special Things.” Collectively, these messages mark moments, and, better than any time machine, they transport me. They can make me smile, tear up or wonder, but all of them can capture a story or a truth beyond memory. That’s why the written word can carry such weight.
But the notes I save are unsolicited and mostly unexpected: that’s where the magic lives. Just this past week, I was sharing with my son, who is expecting his first child, a note he carefully typed (yes, on a typewriter) when he was in first grade, waiting in my office for us to go home. Tucked in the note’s multiple folds were three simple words: “I am sorry.” When I asked Austin, “Sorry for what?” he answered, “Just in case.” That note wins best-in-class in my family files, and it did come in handy as he grew up.
The beautiful thing about these notes is the way in which they anchor a specific time to the tenderness of living out the everyday. They reverberate with all the contours from which they sprung. They grab us because they grab something special, something worth remembering.
Here’s one sent to me over the summer months by a second-grader.
Dear Ms. Brizendine,
I really miss Spence! I hope you are having a very nice summer.
I miss my friends and teachers, dance and music. I caught a
pet toad in my Nani and Nana’s garden. Her name is Lavender or
Ah, the space of summer, and thank goodness for the magical gardens of our grandparents. And how fast these summers pass. By design, our children grow day by day away from us, and as poet Brenda Hillman reminds us, “You can’t keep another person, you know that.”
But you can keep their notes. Forever. You can measure that magical unfolding and remember page by page their childhood dreams, their growing sense of self. Here’s a note sent to me by a third-grader sharing both her aspirations as well as her determination to be a future colleague.
Dear Ms. Brizendine,
Thank you so much for your card. When I grow up I will come
to you to learn how to be a Head of School. I promise to work
very hard and practice every day. Also you are the best head of
And as touched as I am by her closing, I also realize something she may not: I’m the only head of school she knows.
There’s also an “out-of-the-mouth-of-babes” quality to these notes, and they are often a summons for what really matters in our lives. They remind us about our purpose in our shared roles of parenting and teaching and in what Wallace Stevens calls, “getting the world right.”
Here’s a note from a second-grader written in response to my thank-you note to her for speaking at one of our all-school assemblies during which she addressed close to 800 community members:
Dear Ms. Brizendine,
I was so happy to receive your card!
Thank you so much!! It was a great experience to speak at the all school assembly.
I enjoyed it more than I was nervous!
If that last line doesn’t capture the confidence necessary to meet the challenges of what it means to be ready to claim the podium, literally and figuratively, I don’t know what does.
Sometimes these notes are wonderful surprises, written to delight, written to make us stand back and admire the wit and the charm. Here’s one from a Middle Schooler on the brink of a possible snow day:
Hello Mrs. Brizendine,
I was wondering what percent chance we have of a snow day tomorrow because I think it would help me with my math work. I also would like to know just for knowledge because not for school but for our lives we learn.
(p.s. Hoping for a snow day!!!)
Disappointedly, we did have school the next day, learning for life and for school.
But perhaps the most meaningful piece of these notes is the attention it gives to the everyday, making, for me, the ordinary quite extraordinary. It’s all about “the power of across rather than the up and down,” as Brenda Hillman puts it. These everyday notes hold for us the everyday moment and can shepherd us home and make us bow our heads in gratitude. When my mother passed away 14 years ago, I inherited her cookbooks. When grief had less of a hold on me, I opened her favorite book, and folded within the pages were notes I had sent her over the years, with a few from my own daughter as well. I had no idea that she had saved them, and when I was able to, I sat down and read them all more than once: it was a gift that goes beyond any definition as such, and I’ve tucked in a few more in these passing years.
Here’s the thing to remember. These notes are all about what it means to be human: to be a daughter, a father, a mother or a grandparent. These notes are all about what it means just to be in this world and how much that matters. A first-grader says it all in her note to me.
Hi Ms. B
I love I’m growing up.