During the summer before my freshman year of college, I received a letter in the mail with the name and telephone number of my soon-to-be college roommate. When I called this young man, I learned that he hailed from a rural community in eastern North Carolina that was hundreds of times smaller than the New York City borough from which I hailed. On paper, we were clearly coming from two different worlds.
Once we arrived in Chapel Hill, my roommate and I talked about the numerous differences between life in Blounts Creek, N.C., and life in Staten Island, N.Y. We also discovered many things in common, such as a love for late-‘80s pop music, a craving for pizza, and a passion for baseball and Carolina basketball. By early December, we were decorating our dorm together with holiday lights and watching Christmas Vacation.
My old roommate still lives in North Carolina, and I’m back in the New York area now. We still keep in touch via Facebook, and share a friendship that connects back to those formative days when we were embarking on the early stages of adult independence together. As we stand in our mid-40s now, staring at the divided nation around us, I think there are pieces of what my roommate and I experienced back in 1989 that all of my students could use today.
Not everyone gets to be a rising freshman with a roommate who grew up in a different part of the country. But teachers can help their students find “pen pals” in different parts of the United States. All it takes is a little communication, and that’s one thing we know our students are well-equipped to do. Whether it’s email, Facetime, Snapchat or even – gasp! – regular mail, a 17-year-old New York City kid can connect with a 17-year-old from Wyoming. A 15-year-old from Massachusetts can meet a 15-year-old from Alabama. A 13-year-old from Chicago can meet a 13-year-old from West Virginia. These pen pals can spend time sharing their stories, asking questions, and listening. They also can agree to discuss politics, and learn more about why their areas have been leaning in different directions politically.
There is a lot to unpack in the aftermath of Nov. 8. But as we move forward, it may benefit us to encourage our students to reach beyond individual political figures and seek a better understanding of one another by connecting with peers around the country. It’s just a tiny step toward a deeper understanding, but tiny steps can go a long way.