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Hello from high school: a conversation five years in the waiting

April 12, 2024

Over spring break, my mom handed me a letter. Sent by Ms. Clapp, my beloved high school anatomy & physiology teacher, it had languished under a mounting mountain of mail for untold weeks, maybe months. The sender’s handwriting surprised me: In an uncanny fusion of all caps, print and cursive were my name, my mother’s and our home address. The writing certainly wasn’t “teacherly.” I opened it, and I understood why.

“Dear Nora,”

I remember the exercise but can only imagine the setting. For one of Ms. Clapp’s traditions, we wrote letters to ourselves five years in the future. She said she would safeguard them until their time came. Now, more or less, was that time.

“Everything I’m going through right now must be completely irrelevant to you now. SATs, AP tests, even the friends I’ve made in high school. We’re going to be in such different situations, but at the same time, we’re the same person. So, what college did you end up going to?”

During my Bowdoin overnight visit, I walked into town with my host Sophie Bell ’23. Passing The Brunswick Hotel, I considered with bitterness and longing how she no longer had my concerns, and how one day I wouldn’t either. My junior year was foundational—not peripheral—to the years that followed, even if those foundations now lie too deep to be recalled. I don’t think we’re the same person: Even my first-year self I only remember—much less relate to or identify with. But when junior-in-high-school me wrote, “I’m so acutely aware of how transient and relatively inconsequential my life is as of right now, it’s really kind of comforting,” I begrudgingly, tenderly agree with both.

“I hope you’re happy. I hope you did well in your classes, made some lifelong friends and found out what you want to do with your life…. Do work that is meaningful to you and the world. Research, hopefully.”

I am. I did. I love my friends, and I hope to for a long time; I found out I’m becoming a writer, and I hope to become endlessly. And I know it can change the world, though that’s not been a goal since your day. But writing can change lives, and that matters to me. And it is a continual, hopeful searching again and again.

“[F]ive years you’ll be twenty-two, you’ll have graduated college. Going to grad school or what? What are you thinking of doing?”

Not yet, but not far off either. I plan on getting an MFA in about a year. I’m thinking of writing and reading and living feverishly in the meantime.

“In ten years, man … twenty-seven, almost thirty.… Remember you are the only constant in your life, so live it for yourself, love yourself and be someone you love too. Please watch the time and move forward. I wonder what climate change has done at that point.”

I’m only five years younger than twenty-seven. I can hardly imagine how anything, even myself, could be constant. I’m ambivalent about living for myself, but wholehearted about being someone I love. And it was 54 F on December 11, 17 F higher than the mean temperature recorded on that day since 1970. There was no snow before I left for spring break. And I fear this will be the new normal.

“[T]ry to keep in mind the things that matter in life, you know?… Find someone to love, even if that’s just yourself. You are at a point where you have control (haha) over the life in front of you. What do you want to do with your one chance?”

I’ve found someone to love, someone I love very much. You’d shriek with glee if I showed you his picture. It’s been three-and-a-half years, and I still do. Your last line sounds like a reference to Mary Oliver’s infinitely more compelling version: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” My infinitely less compelling answer: Find out and live.

“Try to reach out to friends too.”

Names “completely irrelevant” to varying degrees followed. But new ones populate my heart’s Rolodex: A.N., I.L., N.S., J.H., C.I., N.M., R.A. I don’t need to reach out yet, and I’ll try to hold them so closely I won’t have to.

“Be at peace with Dad. I know you may have regrets but … be kind to yourself. You acted that way for a reason, and maybe you should’ve or could’ve done better but you didn’t, so be at peace with regret too. Talk to someone about it.

[M]ake the most out of this. But … no pressure, too?

Just be content. Be excited, and passionate.

I love you,

Nora 5/23/19”

The best traditions begin ambiguously and end up terribly significant. I will continue mine like this: “Dear Nora…”

Nora Sullivan Horner is a member of the Class of 2024.


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