I could be wrong, but I don’t think either of us were looking to be friends with each other. We met in the last days of January 1999, both of us teachers in the same school. She was on her third year, I hadn’t begun my first day. She was working towards her Master’s degree in reading. I was a newlywed, fresh out of college with an education degree, thinking I’d give teaching a go.
This could be why we weren’t friends right away. She was driven. She had goals and plans to learn more, and further her career. The farthest I’d dreamed up for myself professionally was figuring out an excuse to take my class out of this sleepy town that seemed to only wake up during Irish football season, and get them 90 minutes southwest to Chicago, to see a “real” city.
If we were students in the same class, she’d be the A+, extra credit student. I’d be the student with the solid C-/D+, and happy about it as long as I could go out for recess. (In fact, we did go to the same college and took the same classes, though I’m pretty sure she finished in three and half years, while it took me over four, and that was with taking summer school every single summer.)
I assumed she wasn’t fond of me because I ran my classroom differently than the rest of the one hallway school I was in. It was not a harsh school, but it was orderly and quiet. My 5th/6th grade class was rowdy, and I wanted to give them a different experience because they were older—the oldest in the school—and I knew they loved and missed the teacher that left. I didn’t want to be compared to her. There was no way I would stack up to her expertise. So I made sure I was much different. I wanted to show them a more adventurous side to learning.
This philosophy comes across as disorderly and, really, I didn’t have a clue about classroom management. (I still don’t—it’s so dreadfully boring). Lack of procedures would at times get me in trouble, plus, because I knew I was different, I was lonely in that school.
She walked into my classroom on a day I really needed a friend.
I was staring at a guinea pig in a cage when she entered.
“Who is this?” she asked.
“This is Bee-Bee,” I mumbled. “She wasn’t here when I left for carpool at the end of school, but she’s here now.” I handed her a note from the family who left Bee-Bee in my room. They were going on a trip, and wouldn’t it be great to have a class pet for a week? “I don’t know anything about guinea pigs,” I told her.
She looked over my room, and I watched her. There were stacks of papers I needed to grade, a reading corner that looked more like a wrestling corner, and plants the former teacher left were dying slow deaths. I knew her room didn’t look anything like this.
I started to cry. “What am I gonna do?” I wasn’t just referring to Bee-Bee. I was drowning in the sea of First Year Teaching, and I was ashamed.
She looked at me, looked at Bee-Bee, then looked at me again. “Let the damn thing die,” she said.
Of course she was kidding. Of course we didn’t cause Bee-Bee’s demise.
Her perfectly hilarious statement was the exact opposite of everything I thought I knew of her. I was expecting her to subtly chide me, to guilt me into feeling bad that I didn’t want a class pet. Instead, she offered camaraderie. And thus began our friendship.
A few days later, she’d brought me the first Harry Potter book in a Ziploc bag with her name in the place where’d you’d write, “Beef casserole, 425F 35 minutes.” Instead of waking up to prepare lesson plans, I read about Hogwarts and Quidditch. When I finished, I gave the book back to her, safe and sound, and hopefully with as strong a spine as it started with. I also slipped a note inside the bag. “Thank you,” I wrote. “I loved this book. When does the next one come out?”
When spring came, Entertainment Books were sold around our school for a fundraiser. There were books as thick as dictionaries filled with coupons and discounts for shops, parks, and restaurants around town. She and I both purchased a copy of the book, and after school we’d flip through it looking for things to do. We spent hours talking in coffee shops I never knew existed. We got our nails done for almost pennies at the local beauty school. In the summer, on breaks from working in our classrooms, we’d sit on the curb and sip Cherry Coke slurpees we bought with our buy-one get-one coupons.
I would tell her my big ideas and dreams for teaching and she would help me with the nuts and bolts of bringing those ideas and dreams to life. We never changed each other, but I think our friendship changed us and encouraged us to see the value in how the other went about this business of taking care of young minds.
We both left the school in 2001. She, to move to Kentucky for a job her husband would begin, and I to take a teaching job in another school.
The letters started, then. Neither of us promised to write—it was just something that happened. My guess is she started it. They weren’t emails, either. They were handwritten letters on stationery and notebook paper. Never postcards, and never typed.
For five years we carried on this way, writing each other about teaching, our neighborhoods, our churches, about books we were reading. We answered each other’s questions, and asked more. I remember coming home, looking through the mail, and smiling when a thick envelope with my name on it appeared. I’d go to a coffee shop with her letter, and a stack of paper to write her back. It would take well over an hour to tell her all I wanted to tell her— that I missed her, that teaching was wonderful and so hard and I wished she was still across the hallway to help me with my big ideas and dreams.
She was the most unlikely friend I’d ever had: a rule follower who excelled at anything she attempted. She was a person who confidently took steps along the straight and narrow. If she were writing about our friendship she’d agree. “On paper, we don’t match up,” she might write. “Callie’s creative in that Tasmanian Devil kind of way. It can be trying,” she might warn.
But try we did. Perhaps it was the gracious habit of going to work every day that forged our friendship, but I don’t think it was a relationship of convenience. Our pen pal letters speak to that. There’s nothing convenient about spending an afternoon in a cafe hand-writing a letter to a person who lodged herself in your heart.
It takes time, several pieces of paper, and a pen full of ink to do that.
Callie Feyen has such a knack for telling personal stories that transcend her own life. In my years in publishing, I’ve seen how hard that is—but she makes it seem effortless, and her book is such a pleasure. It’s funny, it’s warm, it’s enlightening. Callie writes about two of the most important things in life—books and clothes—in utterly delightful and truly moving ways. I’m impressed by how non-gimmicky and fresh her writing is. I love this book.”
—Sarah Smith, Executive Editor Prevention magazine; former Executive Editor Redbook magazine