Modern Life

Dear Future Me: Letters look back to childhood and ahead to adulthood

In two new films from the Garage by HP and Redglass Pictures, graduating seniors open the letters they wrote to themselves six years ago — and a cohort of preteens start the tradition anew.

By Courtney Rubin — September 10, 2020

Modern Life

Dear Future Me: Letters look back to childhood and ahead to adulthood

In two new films from the Garage by HP and Redglass Pictures, graduating seniors open the letters they wrote to themselves six years ago — and a cohort of preteens start the tradition anew.

By Courtney Rubin — September 10, 2020

The very first time teacher Richard Palmgren asked his sixth-graders to write letters to their 12th-grade-selves, some took him up on his suggestion to include current events: They tried to predict the ending of the then-impending O.J. Simpson trial. 

When Palmgren — an English teacher at Maplewood Middle School in Maplewood, New Jersey — mailed the students’ sealed letters back to them six years later, a few wrote to let him know that they’d correctly guessed the verdict. But in 26 years of the project (and with more than 1,000 participants to date), that has been the most information Palmgren has ever received about what’s in their letters. 

Until now.

That’s because filmmakers Sarah Klein and Tom Mason of Redglass Pictures have made an affecting documentary called Dear Future Me, showing a crop of this year’s high school seniors actually opening their letters and sharing them — with all the emotion that comes along with this glimpse at their sixth-grade hopes and dreams and goals. (The second part of the film follows this year’s sixth graders writing their letters, ones they’ll receive in 2026.) 

“To finally see the impact on kids — it just had an amazing amount of impact on me,” Palmgren says of the films.

Garage by HP

Dear Future Me | Episode 1: Class of 2020

At a middle school in suburban New Jersey, the 6th-grade students participate in a rite of passage: they compose a letter to their future 18-year-old selves. Watch as they open them six years later.

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.”

Garage by HP

Dear Future Me | Episode 2: Class of 2026

At the peak of the global pandemic, rising middle school students are imagining their futures by penning letters to themselves.

Palmgren and O’Sullivan say they weren’t sure what to expect this year, but despite the pandemic and subsequent school closures — or maybe because of it — participation this year was a little higher than usual.

This year’s sixth-graders wrote about things one might expect of kids at the start of adolescence — friends starting to date, fears about acne — and also, the filmmakers explain, an amazing range of current events, from Black Lives Matter to the death of Kobe Bryant. “They had an incredible awareness of global events,” Klein says.   

The only constant is change, as the saying goes, and also this: Kids move houses or cities or even countries and forget to update Palmgren on their new addresses. He keeps a file of ones returned to him, and very occasionally manages to reunite a letter with its writer.

This year, O’Sullivan mentioned the name of a parent coming in for a conference about his sixth-grade son. That parent’s name sounded familiar, so Palmgren checked his dead letter file. Sure enough, there was the man’s letter from when he was a sixth grader in 1997. He was supposed to receive it in 2003.

“He’s a lawyer now, and said ‘my handwriting has not improved at all,’” Palmgren says.

Watch both films:


Inspired to write your own letter? Download and print a template to get started.