One day last spring an e-mail was sent to the principal of Rainier Valley's Dunlap Elementary School from a man inquiring about a Mrs. Arntz, his third-grade teacher at Dunlap way back in 1953. What had become of her, he wondered.
While no one at the school knew anything about her, it was clear that Mrs. Arntz lived on in the memory of the man who had sent the e-mail. Eventually this 60-year-old former student, now living in Los Gatos, California, became known to me and my class as Mr. Herman.
My class of first-graders and I first heard from Mr. Herman via e-mail, and soon a correspondence was established. It proved to be a communication through both time and space, linking the Dunlap students of today with a Dunlap student of half a century earlier.
The students wrote letters, bundled them together, and mailed them out..The students wondered, and posed questions about, their school to the Dunlap alumnus.
"Did you have a playground in the old days? Was there a library? Did you like reading?" the children asked.
They eagerly awaited a response from Mr. Herman, which arrived not once, but several times over the following weeks and months, and a connection to the man, someone whose face and life they began to imagine in their minds, was made.
"What is your job? How old are you? How is it in California?" asked the children. They would then compliment him with, "You are nice. You are a good boy. You are the best, and you are smart. We love you."
In exploring this man's life through letters, someone they had never seen, the children opened up their hearts and minds. As an added benefit, the children also learned how to write letters using the proper format, correct spelling, and best handwriting they could manage.
In addition to responding individually to each child's questions, Mr. Herman sent the students a series of remembrances from his days at Dunlap 50 years earlier. The stories were posted for the students, and they gathered in twos and threes to read them, helping each other decipher the big words. The stories described life in the old days, when "telephones had dials not buttons... not many people had a TV... [and] there were no CDs or DVDs, microwaves, or computers".
The students enjoyed learning about Mr. Herman's arrival at Dunlap from Texas as a new student in third-grade.
"I was so scared on my first day! Most of the kids knew each other. I didn't know anyone! My teacher, Mrs. Arntz, knew I was scared. But she made sure I had class buddies so that I would not feel alone or scared," wrote Mr. Herman.
Abdikhadar Mohamed was one of the first-graders who wrote to Mr. Herman.
"That takes time because you have to do it carefully," said Mohamed.
The boy remembered the day a present to the whole class arrived from Mr. Herman . It was a box of Three Musketeer bars, which was a favorite of Mr. Herman's, who described how, when he got a bar, he would break the candy into three equal pieces to share with two of his friends after school.
"We enjoyed that present. That was a wonderful time," recalled Abdikhadar, who described sending and receiving mail as being "like kickball - back and forth. You take turns, then you finally get home."
We tend to think of time travel as something to be found only in books of science fiction, existing only within the imagination. However, for this class of Dunlap Elementary School first-graders in the spring of 2004, such travel was real. They experienced it first-hand using their minds. With their elementary skills of reading and writing they discovered a connection between the past and the present. The past came alive for them and it is likely to live on as a result.
Jim McCullough is a first grade teacher at Rainier Valley Elementary School[[In-content Ad]]