How to Save the World-Write a Letter

“Further, since being a writer involves the building of bridges between our own life experience and that of others, our job is to find the most significant points of connection between ourselves and our readers.”                                                                                                            -Luci Shaw, The Writer’s Notebook, essay in A Syllable of Water


I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday how I felt in the days after September 11th. My daughter and I were in New York City that day and the next, staying with my nephew who had graciously hosted us in his Brooklyn apartment. After the world exploded, we set out for upstate NY, where my sister-in-law lived, with plans to camp out there until we could get on a flight back home to Seattle.
We overnighted along the way in a hotel where several pilots were staying. As shocked and traumatized as I was after the sky rained down ash and powder for 24 hours, I couldn’t imagine being a pilot and having to face the reality that my job was to get back into the cockpit of a jet and fly the next day. When we checked into our hotel, I boldly approached each one of them and thanked them for their bravery. They were being called to do one of the most unthinkable jobs on the planet. And they went anyway.

As my daughter and I traveled back to the West coast four days later through three different airports, flight attendants and pilots somberly passed us, their rolling bags trailing behind them, faces set like flint. Again I said ‘thank you’ as often as I could; some of the flight attendants also got a hug.
The country is reeling again from another tragedy, outraged at the carnage and loss of life at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. Many have taken their outrage and channeled it to finding a cause or pointing a finger—more gun control, revamping FBI practices, engaging in more stringent oversight of those mentally ill—each a just and worthwhile issue.
I am not going to argue the wisdom of those efforts, nor am I ignoring the energy and passion of the survivors at Marjory Stoneman who are marching next month. Everyone has a right to use their voice where and how they can.
For my small part, I sat down yesterday and did what writers do: I wrote a letter to my oldest grandson’s high school teacher. In it, I suggested a practice of checking in with students every Friday for a few minutes at the end of the day to see how they are doing. Not verbally, but via paper. (Glennon Doyle Melton recounted the idea via her article at rd dot com and I borrowed it from her.)
High school staff and teachers are the people on the front lines every day from New York to California, Montana to Florida and everywhere in between, who have to go back to work in their buildings after a richly deserved day off and face their jobs again.
They will show up and keep showing up and caring for kids and pouring out their lives day after day in classrooms all over America.
If you know a kid in high school, if you HAVE a kid in high school, if you know a High School teacher, can you take 10-15 minutes to write a note to that principal or teacher? Something like,
“Thank you for facing your job each day under unthinkable circumstances, for doing the difficult job of caring for kids,” or just plain, “thank you.” You can read my letter here and adapt it for your own. 
Or heck, print out this excerpt below (from Glennon Doyle, re: her son’s 5th grade teacher) and pass it along to the teacher or principal. You never know, it might save someone’s life. Or many someone’s lives before more children are lost to loneliness, emptiness and despair.
“Every Friday afternoon, she asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student who they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her.
And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, she takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her, and studies them. She looks for patterns.
Who is not getting requested by anyone else?
Who can’t think of anyone to request?
Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?
Who had a million friends last week and none this week?
You see, Chase’s teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or “exceptional citizens.” Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down—right away—who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.
As a teacher, parent, and lover of all children, I think this is the most brilliant Love Ninja strategy I have ever encountered. It’s like taking an X-ray of a classroom to see beneath the surface of things and into the hearts of students. It is like mining for gold—the gold being those children who need a little help, who need adults to step in and teach them how to make friends, how to ask others to play, how to join a group, or how to share their gifts. And it’s a bully deterrent because every teacher knows that bullying usually happens outside her eyeshot and that often kids being bullied are too intimidated to share. But, as she said, the truth comes out on those safe, private, little sheets of paper.
As Chase’s teacher explained this simple, ingenious idea, I stared at her with my mouth hanging open. “How long have you been using this system?” I said.
Ever since Columbine, she said. Every single Friday afternoon since Columbine. Good Lord.
This brilliant woman watched Columbine knowing that all violence begins with disconnection. All outward violence begins as inner loneliness. Who are our next mass shooters and how do we stop them? She watched that tragedy knowing that children who aren’t being noticed may eventually resort to being noticed by any means necessary.
And so she decided to start fighting violence early and often in the world within her reach. What Chase’s teacher is doing when she sits in her empty classroom studying those lists written with shaky 11-year-old hands is saving lives. I am convinced of it.” (read the entire essay here.)


Build a bridge, be a connection, stand in the gap. Fill the gaps with love, and maybe a letter. 

How the Things we Keep, Keep Us

May 12, 1974

“Dearest Jody,

I’m writing you today to say, “I’m glad I’m your mom.”

I am now, and always have been, so proud of you, Jo. Can’t remember a single moments’ “trouble” that you’ve ever been in or any periods of anxiety that you have caused. Sure there were minutes of panic…like the time Colleen hit you with the baseball bat. But so far as the really important things like your character and independence and industriousness are concerned, you’ve never caused me any doubts.

With much love, Mom”


As a newly retired teacher—first Fall without students—woohoo!—I can FINALLY get to some gargantuan projects that I’ve wanted to tackle for like ever. Seriously; we’ve lived in our house almost 24 years—that’s over half of the time I’ve been married.

One such task was culling through almost a lifetimes’ worth (well, since I was 18) of old letters I’ve saved.

What a treasure trove it has yielded–sparks of memory fanned into flame, words from the the past that have fluttered across my vision, sadness and melancholy and sweet joy all rolled into one.   It has been a sobering experience, actually.

The process took about three weeks. Boxes everywhere, piles of old letters threatening to topple and spill, pounds and pounds of ‘who in the world is this card from?’ and “who is Katie and why do I need this Valentine from 2nd grade?” ending up in the Recycle Bin. A very satisfying activity, especially when I downsized my paper estate to two medium sized boxes.

I love to write and send cards and letters. Still. And better still is the joy and pleasure of receiving a handwritten letter in the mail; it’s like finding a sweet surprise.  Saving and keeping old (and new) cards and letters is preserving the bedrock of the past. A bedrock of shared history, a running record of highs and lows and in betweens—the events that make up the everything that is our life.

I have letters my husband wrote when we were first courting, then engaged.  He is effusive in his love for me and his love for Jesus (I think He loved Jesus more—still does).  There are intimations of some of the challenges we faced back then in our Jesus People days, but nothing fazed him. He was a little starry eyed (I’m sure I was, too.)

The most precious letters are those from my mother who died over 30 years ago. Reading her thoughts was a bittersweet experience. Sweet because I didn’t remember all the kind things she’d said to me (like those above), but bitter because of course, she’s gone.  I think my grandchildren will enjoy getting to know their Great Grandma Helen a little bit when they read her letters, too, someday.

The Power of a Simple Question

I had the surprise privilege of teaching a short (four week) Summer School gig for a friend recently–and I do mean privilege. He asked if I could take over his Reading classes at a private Korean Academy. After thanking God for the answer to prayer for meeting a financial need, I then got VERY happy about the subject matter–what’s not to love about getting paid to talk about books and words??

The classes I took on included students ranging in age from 5th/6th grade (mornings) to 7th/8th/9th grade (afternoons). 

I spend my days during the school year substituting in Elementary Schools; however, I’ve usually preferred the ‘little’ kids–Kindergarten through 4th grade. I was surprised and ultimately thankful at the joy I felt in teaching these age groups–who knew?–especially the older kids.

The book I read with them was ‘Where the Red Fern Grows‘, Wilson Rawls’ classic story about love, determination, sacrifice and God.  

When we finished WTRFG I had 4 days to fill. ‘Poetry’ had been included in the syllabus with some texts suggested. However, I made an executive decision to bring in my own books.

I love poetry (reading and writing it) and felt grateful for the little window of opportunity to sneak it into our days.

Since the events in Ferguson had been capturing the nations’ attention, I wanted to tie something in about liberty and justice and freedom.

I found this poem and shared it with the class:

“Liberty” Janet S. Wong
“I pledge acceptance
of the views
so different,
that make us America.
To listen, to look,
to think, and to learn
One people 
sharing the earth
for liberty
and justice for all.”

Right away after we read it–me first, then in unison–A.’s hand shot up, “Mrs. Collins, is this the Pledge of Allegiance?” 
Reasonable question–these are Korean students.

“No, A, it’s not the Pledge of Allegiance.” Sure sounds like it, tho’, doesn’t it?

We discuss things like liberty and justice, (I’m supposed to be teaching vocabulary after all), and spend a great deal of time pondering whether violence can ever change anything (the consensus–No) We talk about how critical it is to ‘accept the views so different, that make us America’, reminding them about diversity and people of all colors and nations being right here all around us.

“Hey, do you guys KNOW the Pledge of Allegiance?” I ask.

“Of course!”

“Great, let’s practice. Hands over hearts.  Here we go.”

“I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag….” 

Another hand.  

Mrs. Collins, “What does ‘allegiance’ mean anyway? And what’s a ‘pledge’?”

Perfect, more vocabulary.  Excellent timing.

We stop at the various words we need to define and I spend some time on the phrase, “one nation under God.”

I point out to them the phrase has no commas–it is a continuous line–regardless of the way they may have been reciting it.  (Koreans, Africans and Americans all say it the same (incorrect) way. Trust me, I know this.)

Then this. “Mrs. Collins, don’t you have to be a Christian to say that? I mean, the ‘under God’ part?  How can you say that if you’re not a Christian?”


S. pipes in, “Yeah, like aren’t there rules? I heard there are rules to being a Christian. Like being a Jew.  There’s a bunch of commandments, right?”

These questions I could answer–contrary to popular opinion, a public school teacher may answer questions about God when a student initiates the discussion.

Wise 13 year old A. gets up and closes the door and says, ‘Yeah, we need to talk about this.”

So I sit down in my rolling chair, push myself to the back wall of the room (there are only 10 of us) and posit this, “So, if we’re talking about being a Christian, which book are we talking about that might have the answers?”

“The Bible.”

“Correct. So in the Bible, Jesus said there’s really only two commandments–to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

“But what about the rules?  Don’t you have to follow these rules?”

“Actually, Jesus said He came to abolish the rules or commandments the Jews had. He said now He just wants people’s hearts and that we can learn to live by grace. It’s a gift.”

(You can see I’m like jumping up and down with excitement while I’m sitting in my roll-y chair, right? Having conversations with myself, “Can you even believe you’re talking about Jesus in the middle of your reading class with the Korean kids? What an amazing God?!”)

I continue, “You guys, you know I don’t want to get in trouble here.”

“Don’t worry Mrs. Collins, we won’t tell.”  Smile.

I finish by saying something about the fact that accepting God’s grace is all you need if you want to be a Christian.I suggest if they want to know more they could find a Bible and read it for themselves.

Or ask their parents at home. You never know where a simple question would lead.

Atticus to Zeppelin

Classroom photo, mine. 2012

“Recess teacher!!”
That would be me
and anyone else over 3 feet tall
who has a whistle.

“Hey guys, just so you know,
my name’s Mrs. Collins”,
flashing my cartoon-y fish
logo with my fancy-ish name.
“What’re your names?”

“I’m Atticus, this is Zeppelin.”

“Well, those are some pretty big
names,” I remark, and proceed                                                                                                        to untangle the playground snafu.

They saunter off while I muse about
the challenge of the names
they are saddled with, embattled with
in the spelling from K through twelfth,
and I wonder what parents–
readers of classics?
rock and roll fans?–
would do that to a five year old,
giving them, not a name to grace them
or fit well but letters too many
to spell when you are five
and all you want to do is                                                                                                                     play on the swings
and fly……….