Klein and Mason have been making films together for 15 years, but say they have rarely done interviews where the drama actually unfolds on camera — the moment the letter is opened. That the film was made during a global health crisis that has changed most facets of education may only have heightened the drama and made the graduating seniors more reflective.
“I think for some of these kids it was the first time in their lives where things didn’t go exactly as planned,” Klein says. “I think they were grappling with what it means not to have control.”
As they read their letters, the kids reflect on how much both they (and the world) have changed in six years. For one student, this included coming to terms with sexual identity and learning disabilities. Others talk about whether their family got a Chromebook (spoiler alert: yes), crushes they got over, and prom dreams dashed by the coronavirus.
Palmgren first got the idea for the project from his mentor, Robert Caiazzo, a science teacher who was enchanted with the idea of writing to one’s future self being like time travel — very slow time travel. When Caiazzo died suddenly at age 46, Palmgren took on the project as a kind of tribute. He now runs the project with language arts teacher, Maureen O’Sullivan.
The prompts have stayed roughly the same (current events, friends, a few open-ended questions to yourself), while other instructions have had to evolve with the times.
“A kid sent himself a floppy disk, and by the time he got his letter, there was nothing to play a floppy disk on,” says Palmgren. He also suggests the students write, not type, their letters, since seeing old handwriting is part of the fun.
Jacquelyn Gualpa, 18, agreed to take part in the documentary mostly because she was curious about the experience of making a film — she is, after all, now a first-year majoring in communications at Caldwell University. She was amused to read all the questions she wrote to herself asking if she remembered various classmates. “Of course I remember these people. What was I thinking?”
Caitlyn Huetz, 18, says she was pretty sure she had written about a crush but was surprised to read a question from her sixth-grade self about chemistry (the lab kind, not romantic!) and remember her early enthusiasm for the subject.
“I used to think about science all the time,” says Huetz, now a first-year studying vocal performance and music education at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. “I loved all the hands-on stuff I was getting to do at that age, but over the years the classes got harder or less interesting.”
Both Gualpa and Huetz say they would consider writing letters to their future selves again, though they probably wouldn’t be precise about the six-year-interval.
“Maybe I’ll write one and put it somewhere I’d never look and I’ll find it one day when I’m cleaning,” Gualpa says. “Maybe it will have words I might need to hear then.”