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Monday, April 7, 2014

Canadian Students Receive Letters From The Past

Bruce Farrer, a Canadian teacher, has begun sending his former students letters they wrote to themselves as children. (Bruce Farrer)

Bruce Farrer, a Canadian teacher, has begun sending his former students letters they wrote to themselves as children. (Bruce Farrer)

What would you say if you had the chance to talk to the future version of you — the you living 15 or 20 or 25 years from now?

Bruce Farrer

Bruce Farrer

For a group of adults, that chance has become reality.

And for that, they have 72-year-old Bruce Farrer of Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan to thank.

He was their middle school teacher, and decades ago, assigned them a very meaningful essay: write a 10-page letter to your future self.

The students then had a choice of whether they wanted the letters mailed in 15, 20 or 25 years. They could also decide whether Farrer could read the letter — or whether it was going to be too personal for his eyes. Most of the kids handed in the assignment and forgot about it. Until the letters started to arrive.

Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks to Farrer and his former student, Joel Cyr, about the letters project.

Joel Cyr with the letter he wrote to himself 15 years ago. (Joel Cyr)

Joel Cyr with the letter he wrote to himself 15 years ago. (Joel Cyr)

Cyr says he was excited to receive the letter from his past.

“I thought I remembered what was going to be in there, but there’s a lot more in there than I actually realized,” Cyr said. “I just really wanted to see what my mind was like, what I thought of the world at that time.”

Farrer said most of the letters had common teenage themes.

“A lot of the students analyzed each other, and tried to say what kind of things they’d end up doing or being,” Farrer said. “I had one girl who told me it took her two days to decide to open the letter … I think some of them are embarrassed by how immature they were.”

When asked what he’d say now, as an adult, to his 14-year-old self, Cyr says he’d tell himself not to take high school so seriously.

“The biggest thing I’d say is a lot of the stuff that goes on in high school doesn’t matter as much,” Cyr said. “It [did] influence who I became, but it [didn't] define who I became.”

The process of sending out the letters can also be sad for Farrer. Some of his students have died. He recalls tracking down one such student this past year.

“It was such a nice letter: she had little notes from her friends, it was almost like a time capsule for her,” Farrer said. “But I think it would bring comfort to her family to have that part of her there.”

Cyr says he’s grateful that Farrer saved his students’ letters so diligently.

“If I look at all of my other high school assignments, I don’t think I’d be able to find any one of them,” Cyr said. “This is something that he was able to save from our past … it’s something that I keep forever.”

Guests

  • Bruce Farrer, retired teacher at Bert Fox Community High School.
  • Joel Cyr, Farrer’s former student and a photographer.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. What would you say if you had the chance to talk to the future you, the one living decades from now? Well, a group of young people had that opportunity. That's because they were students years ago of now 72-year-old Bruce Farrer in the tiny town of Fort Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan. When they were 14, he assigned them to write a 10-page letter to themselves, promising he'd mail in 15, 20, 15, 25 years. They could decide. They could also decide whether Farrer was allowed to read it.

Most of them forgot all about the assignment until the letters arrived as they are now for some. Bruce Farrer joins us on the line from Qu'Appelle. Welcome.

BRUCE FARRER: Thank you.

YOUNG: And we're also joined by one of your former students. Joel Cyr is a photographer now in Regina, Saskatchewan. Joel, welcome to you, as well.

JOEL CYR: Thank you.

YOUNG: And Joel, let's start with you. So when you opened the letter up, did you remember it?

CYR: I thought I'd remember it. I thought I remembered what was going to be in there, but there was a lot more in there than I actually realized.

YOUNG: So what were some of the things that you wrote about?

CYR: I just would say things about some of my friends and the ones that I would try and always impress and be with. One of the things I thought was interesting that I put in the letter was I actually put the prices of some of the things that I would buy. So one of the things I wrote was the price of things might be slightly different by the time that you read. Gas was a whopping 75 cents a liter, and a chocolate bar was about $1, and a video game was around $53.

YOUNG: What did you say about other people? Most - I'm hearing that a lot of these, you know, being 14-year-olds, the concern is you said about being liked. Give us another sample of the social Joel at 14.

CYR: Sure. For one of my friends, I wrote: She is a very nice girl and usually everyone's friend. She looks pretty, even though sometimes she thinks she isn't. She's fun to be around and has a really great sense of humor and listens well to your problems.

YOUNG: Bruce Farrer, jump in there. What are you thinking when you hear Joel Cyr speaking about his 14-year-old self?

FARRER: Well, I'm thinking that that is pretty typical. A lot of the students analyzed each other and tried to say what kind of things they would end up doing or being. Some of them were quite accurate. There was one I found really amazing. A fellow had written on his front page: So, have you married that beautiful blonde Swede yet? He was just interested in Abba, which at the time was fairly popular among the teenagers.

He ended up in Sweden, did marry a Swedish girl and lived there for a number of years. He's back in Saskatchewan now. When the letter got back to his parents, they opened it, which they shouldn't have done, but anyway they did, and they called him in Sweden and said you won't believe this, but you predicted that you were going to marry a girl from Sweden.

YOUNG: Isn't that something? Well, there's another student I'm reading in the Canadian papers, another student who started his letter with, you know, hey good looking, how's your life, writing to himself in the future. And at the time, he also was dating somebody but had a crush on another girl named Erin(ph), and 20 years later when he opens his letter, he'd married Erin.

FARRER: Right, and he was one that was easy to find. They are still living in Fort Qu'Appelle.

YOUNG: Well, but Joel, what's it like to open this up? I don't know, for some people it would be heart-stopping to open this thing up from your past, your recent past. Yours was 15 years. But what's that like to open that up?

CYR: It was exciting. I had forgotten about the letter, like I think most people do. It was just exciting to think oh, wow, you know, this is something from my past that I may have not had if it wasn't for what Mr. Farrer did by saving them. And I really just wanted to see what my mind was like, what I thought of the world at that time.

YOUNG: Do you have some people, Bruce Farrer, for whom it is too emotional or very emotional?

FARRER: Oh yes. I had one girl who told me it took her two days to decide to open the letter. She said it sat on her desk, and she was afraid to open it, afraid of what she had said. And another interesting thing is I find that when I meet a student, an ex-student, in a social situation and say to them, so, you received your letter, didn't you? And they change the subject. And I think some of them are embarrassed by how immature they were.

But after all, when you're 14, you're immature.

YOUNG: Well, also maybe there's some sadness because the things they thought they were going to do, maybe they didn't.

FARRER: I think in some cases yes. I remember on ex-student, and I hadn't recalled that until he mentioned it to me, but I remember reading his letter, and he was going to solve all the world's problems. He was going to be the doctor who would find the cure for cancer, but he was also going to be the scientist who solve a number of our scientific challenges, and he said to me almost all my predictions were just so preposterous.

But one did happen, the one that he hoped that he would have a happy married life, and indeed that's what he's achieved.

YOUNG: That's Bruce Farrer. We're also talking to his former student Joel Cyr. Mr. Farrer asks his 14-year-old students to write a letter to their future selves, and then he mails it out 15, 20, 25 years later. And we're finding out what happens then. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.

Well, you know, this is such a great lesson in introspection. I'm wondering, Joel, now that you have this letter from your 14-year-old self, if you could, what would you tell your 14-year-old self?

CYR: I think the biggest thing I would say is that a lot of the stuff that goes on in high school doesn't matter as much. It's not as big a deal as you make it seem. I know now that high school, it was a great part of my life, I really enjoyed it, but it is a small part of my life. And it does influence who I became, but it didn't define who I became.

YOUNG: And again Bruce Farrer, the teacher who gave you that assignment, we understand at 72 you're retired now, formally retired, you work quite a bit as a substitute teacher, but your house is filled with bins of these letters that you send out every year. And tracking down these people is not easy, even though they gave you names of cousins and relatives that might stay in Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan, so you could more easily find them.

But tracking them down, I understand, is also sometimes very sad because sometimes they've died, and you have to open these letters, what, to make sure they're OK to give to the family?

FARRER: That's right. There was one this year. I hadn't found this girl for a number of years, and I did find a relative many, many miles away. And they were a little suspicious when I contacted them. And then later, they said oh, well, she died a number of years ago. And so I read the letter. It was such a nice letter. She had little notes from her friends. It was almost like a time capsule for her. It was so unfortunately that she had passed away. But I think it would bring comfort to her family to have that part of her there.

YOUNG: What a gift. Joel, do you see it that way, as a gift to have this glimpse?

CYR: If I look at all of my other high school assignments, I don't think I would be able to find any one of them. And this is something that he was able to save from our past. It's something that now that I have years later, is going to be something I keep forever.

YOUNG: That's Joel Cyr. He is now a photographer in Regina, Saskatchewan. But 15 years ago, he was a 14-year-old student of Bruce Farrer, who asked him and the other students to write a letter to their future selves, and that letter has now gone out. Bruce, what a wonderful thing. Thank you so much for talking to us about it.

FARRER: You're very welcome.

YOUNG: And Joel, thanks to you.

CYR: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOUNG: It strikes me that anybody could do this: parents, teachers. We're making a note. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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  • kpallante

    I was really surprised that so much time was wasted on this story. There was nothing about it that made it interesting, IMO. I love all the others though!

  • Sandyy

    What a fabulous story! I wish I could receive a letter from myself, especially as I raise my kids who are about the age that I would have written the letter! I’m sure it would help me remember what it was like to be there age.
    With all the grim stories being reported everyday, it is so refreshing that you take the time to remind us of human kindness. Thank you for such a lovely story.

  • Martha

    Joel Cyr, as a photographer, and Mr. Farrer, as a teacher who seems to enjoy not-so-ancient history, might be interested in this-

    http://videomartyr.blogspot.com/

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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