The passing of notes

This story was previously published in the Feb. 12 edition of The News-Gazette.

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We didn’t have Facebook or even email; rather, we ’80s teens communicated through written notes passed in class, slipped into lockers, and mailed to homes over the summer.

I feel sorry that kids don’t write notes now; recently, text-generation students of mine gave me the “What the heck?” look when I asked if they had passed notes in school when they were young. Nope. They didn’t have to. Electronic fairies did it for them.

Those students, however, did reminisce with nostalgic “do you remembers” about the ancient, bygone system called MySpace!

Too bad for them, because I still remember the way a note with a girl’s handwriting — maybe neatly folded in a triangle — tingled my fingers when it fell into my hands from an open locker or geometry book. A note was a kiss, really — maybe on the lips or on the cheek (depending on the contents) — or maybe even a slug in the stomach — if the author were really mad. Whatever — a note meant human touch. I don’t think I would say the same of a text. What vivified notes was the human contact needed to create them.

A note in the locker meant warm hands pressed pen to notebook paper, trimmed paper tabs neatly off, folded it cleverly, and slipped it — perhaps with a tremble — into an orange locker in eighth grade hall. A note took commitment. Letters even more so.

I remember long summers far away from home living with my divorcee Dad and coming in the house to see a letter — a letter! — with Jenny’s handwriting on it, hanging from the top trim of a bedroom door by a 2-foot piece of tape, dramatically placed by my stepbrother who knew I would be ecstatic to receive it; I was. A letter! A note!

Every single word could be analyzed because someone had taken the time to find a pen, some stationary, an envelope, a stamp — because someone meant business: If a girl signed the letter “Love Dana” or “Your Friend Dana” or just “Dana” it made a BIG difference, because likely she had taken the time to think it through.

You see, you can punch out a text and press send with a shaky hand and frowny emoticon, and quite reasonably claim later you didn’t really mean it. But, a letter? How could you not mean a letter! You could rethink it a hundred times as it sat in the mailbox waiting to be picked up the next day. A letter? The medium itself was a message, to paraphrase McLuahan.

Even opening a letter was a ritual: I would savor the envelope, flipping it over in the hands (the best letters even had messages on the back), unwrap it slowly like a Christmas present, read it over and over, and then place it in a shoebox for later. Over time the shoebox would grow full.

My favorite school note I ever received may have even given me a break. A girl slid a note to me in Algebra class, with the question, “Do you know what ‘ubiquitous’ means?” scribbled on it. My breath stopped. She was a brainiac, and this was a chance to impress her, and — not actually knowing the word — I decided to go with humor, so I wrote: “It means ‘You look like a French pastry dish: pronounced U — Be — Quicheous!'” She returned, “Gee, I thought it meant ‘omnipresent’ or something!” All this with the math teacher’s back turned. I missed the word, but I won her heart for a few months with that one.

Years later, one of my grad-school professors off the cuff asked us, “Does anyone here know what the word ‘ubiquitous’ means?” I called out, “OMNIPRESENT!” and I had a friend and a note passed daringly up and down the aisle by four people to thank for it. That professor later served on my dissertation committee, and you just never know.

Life has moved on, and a few years ago I had to clean out my mother’s condominium and there in a closet like it had been waiting for me, tapping its fingers, sat a large box filled with my notes and letters from junior high through college: Some were from girls I hurt; others from girls who hurt me. One was even an unopened Dr. Pepper can two girls had given me because they thought I was cute. A type of note.

I gazed at the cardboard box, unsure, and then … I threw them away. All of them. Just gone. Why? Because they didn’t mean anything to me? Because the whole thesis of this piece is wrong, and that notes and letters are just as erasable as a crowded in-box? No. Quite the opposite. Because these words — carved by sharp number two pencils — still cut me to the quick. I realized, I didn’t want or need them anymore. They had to go.

The few notes I cared to remember, I knew by heart, anyway. It was time now to write new chapters to my wife and children, new friends, and a few old friends I have managed to keep up with. In fact, after drafting this piece, I wrote my wife an honest-to-goodness, sent-through-the-mail letter, because a letter means love.

[Steve Rutledge is a lifelong resident of Champaign-Urbana and teaches developmental English at Parkland College. He can be reached at drfreebird777@gmail.com.]

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