A teacher’s influence helped two young girls from opposite sides of the country develop a five-decades-long friendship.
From young pen pals to old friends
In the fall of 1968, I returned home from teaching Grades 1 through 3 in Newfoundland—under the Mennonite Central Committee—to teach Grades 1 and 2 in southern Manitoba.
I felt the best way for my Prairie students to improve their awareness of life and culture on Newfoundland’s northern peninsula was to become pen pals with the students there. One way for the children to experience different cultures at the time was through writing, where asking questions could satisfy their curiosity. For students to have someone other than their teacher read their letters was a great incentive to write. The whole class in my Prairie school classroom had the opportunity to have a pen pal from northern Newfoundland. (Don’t miss these spectacular shots of the Prairies.)
To set the stage, I introduced them to their pen pals using pictures and interesting anecdotes, such as the boy who came to school by boat because his parents were in charge of the lighthouse, or the little girls playing a circle game chanting, “A Tisket, a Tasket, A Green and Yellow Basket.” There were tales of lobsters cooking on the wood stove for the evening meals, baby seals crying on the ice floes in spring, and how on clear days one could see the Labrador coast eight miles across the Strait of Belle Isle. They saw pictures of icebergs dotting the strait in spring and into early summer. Although most of my students were interested in the lives and surroundings of these Newfoundland children, the writing lasted only a short while, except for Eleanor, a Grade 2 student from the Prairies, and Lois, a Grade 3 student from northern Newfoundland, who unbeknownst to me, kept their correspondence going. (Find out why Newfoundland is the kindest province.)
Eleanor and Lois wrote to each other from the ages of seven and eight respectively and kept in touch for almost two decades before losing contact for a time. In 2003, I received an email from Lois, telling me that she had found Eleanor on Facebook and that they had reconnected.
“Yes, it was amazing that I was to find Eleanor again,” wrote Lois.
“I had thought of her many times over the years. We did write for many years, but I lost contact with her at about the time she was getting married. I remember thinking how far that was from what I was doing at that point in my life, but then, don’t we all come full circle?”
How two little girls of seven and eight came to grips with each other’s distinctive cultures was amazing because the settings could not have been more diverse. One, where the salty sea breeze blew off the Strait of Belle Isle and the lighthouse beamed its rays through the fog, and the other, where grain elevators stood as sentinels and dairy and grain farms marked the landscape.
In reminiscing, Eleanor remembered that it had been exciting to find a letter in the mailbox with her name on it. Later on in their communication, they both echoed the sentiment that they had things in common, including Christian faith, values and the love of writing. They shared stories of family experiences, dreams, children and professions. They were determined to keep in touch despite the 4,737 kilometres, diverse topography, different cuisine and traditions that separated them.
Although they have not met in person, Eleanor and Lois are still in touch via e-mail. Lois now lives in St. John’s, while Eleanor lives in rural Manitoba.