Letter Writing

After writing a long letter to someone Saturday morning, I attended the “RI Writing Project” Spring Conference in the afternoon and listened to Rhode Island’s Poet Laureate, Tina Cane, speak to an audience of school educators about social and emotional learning and, surprisingly, letter writing. After reading some of her poetry, Tina asked us to take a few minutes to write a letter to a teacher from whom we learned something important.

The lessons we remember are not the facts memorized for tests – math formulas, history dates or verb conjugations. Rather, we remember the relevant information we can apply to living mindful lives. Then Tina prompted us to circle the strongest words in our letters and use those to compose a poem. So here is my tribute to my third grade teacher, Miss Fribley:


You challenged us to use esoteric words.

Words like scintillating, onomatopoeia and loquacious.

We competed in spelling bees and homonym games,

and decades later,

when a Praying Mantis landed

atop the polished surface of our Punch Buggy,

to contemplate its reflection,

I did, too,

recognizing Nature’s astonishing word play:

Praying on a Beetle

Preying on a Beetle, a gargantuan Beetle.

Dear Miss Fribley, how does one swallow such a thing as that?

Wondering what Miss Fribley may be doing now, I conducted a search and came across her obituary:

Judith Ann Fribley, of Winnetka, IL., died July 7, 2008. She was 71.

Born April 25, 1937 in Pana, she was a 1955 graduate of Pana High School, and attended MacMurray College in Jacksonville Illinois, where she pursued a degree in elementary education. She taught for many years at Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka and did graduate studies in education at the University of Illinois. She spent several years teaching in Connecticut before returning to Illinois. She often traveled throughout the United States, pursuing her interests in wildlife and the Native American culture. Her trip to Alaska to see Mt. McKinley in the sun was one of her most memorable.

Ms. Fribley was an active member of the Winnetka Presbyterian Church, and an avid volunteer at Good News Partners of Jonquil Street in Chicago, which provides housing and other services for the formerly homeless. She also tutored and mentored indigent children through Good News’ programs, and cooked and served at the soup kitchen they sponsor. She was a longtime supporter of many local and national charities. She was known for her love of cats, and throughout her life adopted many from local shelters.

Ms. Fribley enjoyed gardening and visiting museums and cultural events with friends and family. She was an abundantly generous woman, and a wonderful daughter, sister, aunt, and friend. She resided in Winnetka until 2004, when she entered the Alzheimer’s wing of Presbyterian Homes, McGaw Care Center, in Evanston

There is a quote at the top of Miss Fribley’s obituary page: “Say not in grief: ‘He is no more’, but live in thankfulness that he was.” And so, I think of him, our late son Neil, who loved games as well as Miss Fribley.

From a social emotional learning perspective, this letter writing assignment serves two express purposes. One is to articulate a life lesson, and the other is to express thankfulness, a practice which has benefits that extend far beyond school and on into later life. Thank you, Miss Fribley.

A letter is a wonderful to say “Thank You” or to let someone know you are thinking about them. When is the last time you wrote a personal letter, by hand, and mailed it to someone special?

Slam Dunk!

Be a Difference Maker!

Student Leadership Training Program (SLTP) founder, Jim Fitzgerald emphasized service, “A big part of everyday is spent building character and those efforts culminate on Friday with our service project. For the last few years that project has been to decorate hats to provide to hospitals to give to kids.” The service project centered around David Saltzman’s magical children’s book, The Jester Has Lost His Jingle. which has been a part of the SLTP program since it’s publication in 1995.

Saltzman was an English and art major at Yale University, diagnosed with cancer during his senior year. For the next year-and-a-half, he kept a journal of his thoughts and drawings while completing The Jester Lost His Jingle and other stories. David Saltzman died 11 days before his 23rd birthday. Five years later, his parents published The Jester Has Lost His Jingle and printed 10,000 copies to give to hospitalized children. The book imparts lessons of hope, humor, encouragement and charity. David’s parents also established the Jester & Pharley Phund, a non-profit dedicated “to bringing the joy of laughter and the love of learning to all children, especially those who may be ill or have special needs.”

Regarding the SLTP service project, Jim explains, “It is a defining time for our kids,and we celebrate their feelings by sharing David’s wonderful story about choices and the meaning of love. The group explores the concept of service and how to make it more meaningful and less of a chore.” At the end of the difference maker workshop, each student receives a large, decorative safety pin with a jingle bell to wear at future SLTP events. “We tell them,” says Fitzgerald, ‘When you hear the bell jingle, you need to remember: It’s up to YOU to make a difference. It’s up to YOU to care.’”

Many SLTP students returned to their high schools and implemented The Jester & Pharley Phund’s Reading To Give program in their local elementary schools. Neil Fachon volunteered to lead the program in East Greenwich. He teamed up with other SLTP alumni, planned meetings, coordinated the paperwork, helped present dramatic readings of the book to elementary classrooms and enrolled the younger students in read-a-thons to raise money for giving Jester books and dolls to pediatric cancer patients at nearby hospitals. He also helped thread beaded jingle bells to give out as a reminder of the Jester and his joyful spirit.

Four years later, when Neil was hospitalized for brain surgery and later pneumonia, I wore the jingle pin he had made everyday. One unforgettable character in The Jester Has Lost His Jingle is a little girl lying in a hospital bed with her head wrapped in a bandage. The jester visits her room, talks with her and tries to cheer her up. It is the most precious moment of the story. It is where the Jester discovers he still has his jingle – his ability to bring joy to others.

Many people are unaware that when a child has a serious illness, his or her life can become depressingly isolated. Some children are so sick they are unable to go to school and be with their friends. It is easy for the kids at school to forget about the friend who is not present. While siblings, parents and caregivers do their best to tend to the well-being of a pediatric cancer patient, that patient sorely misses the company of friends. Friends are special! Friends are the jesters of life!

Since Neil’s passing on February 19, 2017 from DIPG brain cancer, $20,401 in cash and in-kind contributions have been given in Neil’s memory to The Jester & Pharley Phund to help bring joy and laughter to hospitalized children. These kind gifts have resulted in the donation of 577 Jester books and 448 Jester dolls and 4 Jester Educator Enrichment Manuals to hospitals, as well as the donation of a Smile Cart to Camp Sunshine, along with 36 Jester books, 2 Jester dolls and 2 PhunBooks.

The Jester Has Lost His Jingle is Dream Visions 7 Radio’s February Kids Book-of-the-Month. For every $10 donation in Neil’s memory, The Phund will be honored to donate a copy of “The Jester Has Lost His Jingle.” The donor and Neil will be acknowledged in a bookplate. You may want to order a copy for a special child in your life; this book is inspirational for students or for anyone of any age who could use a mood booster. Donations and personal orders can be made online at www.thejester.org or checks may be mailed to The Jester & Pharley Phund, P.O. Box 817, Palos Verdes Estates, CA 90274. Donors may also contribute by calling 310-544-4733. Be a difference maker, give the gift of joy and laughter to someone in need.

Dear Me

     Back in January 2011, Neil’s science teacher asked each of his freshman students to write a letter to themselves, to be delivered upon college graduation. Little did Neil know he would not live to read the letter he’d written. In May 2018, Mr. Rath contacted us, told us about the letter and asked if we would like to have it. At first, he had hesitated doing so, fearing the letter might contain something we might find painful, but on balance he thought we should make the decision about whether or not to read it. The following Sunday, Mother’s Day, Dean carefully slit open the envelope and handed it to me. I read it aloud:

“Dear Me,

“By the time I read this I better be a billionaire mechanic top class with a chauffeur and lots of nice stuff. JKJK. But seriously. It better be better than where I am right now though, cause where I am now is seems to be no friends, only Starcraft 2, Chess, in the fall soccer and whatever else I decide to do. My niche which is apparently the main thing I am supposed to be writing about, according to Mr. Rath, is small. I don’t have much of a niche at school. I go I learn take notes take tests, move from group to group, talk from person to person without any real close friends. Sept Andrew, but you probably don’t even remember him where you are somewhere in the future, Plus he changed schools to Hendricken so we can’t hang much anymore. My niche at home is fairly small. I help with yard work; raking, shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, picking up sticks, minny stuff nothing big. I just sit around playing Starcraft 2 all day. Which is probably going to cost me a bit, but hopefully it doesn’t cost you wherever you are. Hopefully you actually got a girlfriend and a group of friends you hang with on Friday nights. People call you regularly and chat. I know I don’t have it as bad as many others, but it would be nice to have friends to hang with after school that aren’t complete morons. I hope whenever you open this letter you find it of interest and not a peculiar annoyance, because if you found this to be an annoyance that would kinda be sad to me. It would mean you’d fallen farther into a slump than you are now. Well enough of this riff raff. You probably gunna think you were crazy back when you was me.



      I had to pause to wipe away my tears every time the text blurred before my eyes. We were aware Neil’s first semester of high school was a tough one, between soccer team hazing and disappointing friendships. When Neil chose to confide in us about his social challenges, he did so because he needed us to listen, yet refrain from becoming directly involved, and we learned to respect that.

     Dear Me. Ironically, the opening words are suggestive of an exclamation expressing surprise or distress, as in “Dear Me, how do I answer this question?” Describing one’s niche can be an intimidating writing assignment for a young person. A niche is a position, role, career or activity that suits somebody’s talents, personality and interests. How many kids struggle to figure out where they belong… how they fit in among their peers or how they find their special place in the world?

     Daunting as this may seem, questioning one’s niche is a tremendously valuable exercise in and of itself, because quite simply, it provokes deep thought. I sensed that, for Neil, this particular question sparked an urgent search for answers… Eventually, Neil’s niche became “friendship.”

If you were to write a letter to yourself, what would you write?

What do you think about Writing?

Estudiantes de ESL, corte y pegue el siguiente texto en “google translate” para convertirlo a su idioma principal.

One year, Neil’s first assignment for English class was to write a letter to the teacher, about English and writing, so he wrote:

  I like to be treated with respect. It’s nice when teachers tell funny stories about their past related to a subject we’re discussing. I find that it makes classes more interesting and keeps students from dozing off. I really dislike it when a teacher gets overly strict and starts to yell at the class or when one student is goofing off and the whole class gets blamed.

  As a writer I can write pretty strong and vividly, but it’s definitely not my strongest subject. I’d like to get better at using quotation marks and conversations in my writing. I like to write about my memories and past experiences and hate writing “how to” procedures. I’m best at voice in my writing and worst at spelling and grammar (But please, please, please don’t do to many grammar lessons, they bore me to death. Probably why I’m worst at it).

  My favorite book series is the “Alex Rider” series. It’s about a teenage spy who does James Bond kind of stuff. My favorite book type definitly, positivly is fiction/fantasy/Science Fiction. In past classes I’ve hated doing picture narative and have loved doing personal naratives.

Some people like to write science fiction of fantasy stories, while others may prefer composing poetry or keeping a personal journal. Some people dream of publishing a book, while others just enjoy writing and receiving letters. Imagine writing a letter to a teacher and sharing your opinions and preferences with regards to writing

What would you like the teacher to know about you?

What do you like and dislike about English class?

What are your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to writing?

How would you like to improve your writing?

What kind of writing do you enjoy doing?

What genre of books do you like to read?

What are your favorite activities outside of school or work?

Do you participate in activities you might like to write about?

January 28, I begin facilitating a high school Writing Club and am looking forward to conversing with the students about their personal goals – what kinds of pieces they wish to write, what they want to learn and how they hope to improve their skills. Beyond that, I look forward to guiding them, reading their words and learning more about them. So, what do YOU think about writing?