I Had More Than 100 Pen Pals as a Kid (Maybe You Were One of Them!)

This was 1989, so I came to acquire them without the internet and by doing something that would probably never fly today.
Publish date:
December 31, 2015
childhood, writing, friendship, letters, pen pals, 1980s, teen magazines

At the beginning of my fifth-grade year, I ran for secretary of my elementary school's student council (which, for all intents and purposes, was imaginary). I was so excited when I won because I imagined having important meetings with my best friend, Betsy, who'd been elected president, and the boy I'd had a crush on for years, Kyle, who'd been elected VP. No important meetings ever happened — I think maybe they gathered us together in a classroom one afternoon to ask us about decoration preferences for a school dance? — and that's probably for the best considering we were 10 years old and not great at having important meetings.

I wasn't even entirely sure what a secretary did when I first considered running for the office, but based on what I'd gathered over my short time on Earth at that point, I was pretty sure it was someone who wrote stuff down. I looked it up in the dictionary and saw the word correspondence, and that's what sealed the deal — if anyone understood correspondence, it was me.

And to prove that to my fellow students, the focus of my campaign speech was the fact that, at the time, I had more than 100 pen pals.

This was 1989, so I came to acquire such a large number of pen pals in a very 1989 kind of way — and by that, I mean without the internet and by doing something that would probably never fly today.

In the '80s, teen entertainment magazines like Bop, Teen Beat and SuperTeen had a page towards the back of each issue that could more or less be described as pen-pal personal ads. About a dozen girls from around age 9 to 15 had a paragraph about themselves — their hobbies, favorite celebrities, etc. — often next to a school picture and concluding with their home address. You could write to these girls and probably — definitely — become best friends forever.

That's how I got my first pen pal, Miriam in Minnesota. She was a couple years older than me, and I was really flattered that she wrote back — and consistently.

But I wanted more. I wanted all the pen pals. And with my parents' permission, when I was in fourth grade, I submitted an application to be one of the girls who's listed in the pen-pal section.

Within a few months, I found my image mere pages away from that of heartthrobs like Kirk Cameron and Fred Savage. Maybe they'd see me and write to me! I thought, because they surely read publications like this and are looking for a 10-year-old girlfriend.

Instead, and as I'd originally hoped, I started receiving dozens of letters from other tween girls around the country.

Ultimately, I received almost 200 introductory letters.

Amazingly, from what I recall, none of the letters were from creepy adults. I'm not sure when these pen-pal sections became extinct, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was because of the threat of exactly that (and worse). In the '80s, though, no one thought it was weird to publish little girls' pictures and home addresses in a $2 magazine available at every drugstore in America. What could go wrong?

And I had no reason to think it was weird because, for me, it all worked out exactly as I'd hoped. I wrote back to everyone who wrote me an introductory letter, and I ended up exchanging more than one letter with over 100 kids.

This became my favorite hobby and my biggest motivator to finish my homework. Knowing that there was mail for me was incredibly exciting (and extremely misleading about what getting mail as an adult would be like). I loved reading about the similarities and differences between my life and that of other All New Mickey Mouse Club (or MMC, as we'd call it) fans, asking them questions, answering theirs. There was nothing so satisfying as flipping up the little red flag on the side of my mailbox.

Inevitably, despite my best efforts, I couldn't keep up frequent correspondence with most of the kids who wrote to me, and about a year after my listing, a few girls became my ride-or-die pen pals.

Shelby lived in Iowa, which seemed like an entirely different country to a New Jersey girl who'd never left the east coast. She was funny and blonde, and we seemed to have a lot in common along the lines of music and unrequited crushes on the boys in our grade. We must have written to each other for at least three years before we got distracted by being teenagers.

Years later, when I visited Omaha, Nebraska, with my then-husband, she was the first person I thought of when I realized it bordered Iowa.

Dawn lived about an hour away in another New Jersey town. She was a year older than me, and I looked up to her and her voluminous bangs (I can still picture the school photo she sent me). We wrote to each other so regularly that I invited her to my 11th birthday party — and she came!

"I remember you were one of my four first pen pals," Dawn told me. "I remember in your first letter to me, you asked me if I used Prodigy. I had no idea what that was, and the dictionary offered no help except that you were perhaps very, very smart.

"I was always excited to get the mail," she said. "There is even a bit of that residually ingrained in me, although the only thing that comes now is bills." See?! It was totally misleading.

"Your party was interesting," she continued. "I remember being excited to meet you in person, but nervous to meet all your friends since I was very shy. You and your dad were incredibly welcoming, and by the end, I didn't want to leave."

If you're wondering how I was able to get this quote from Dawn, it's because we're Facebook friends. Same goes for Shelby. Even though we stopped writing to each other decades ago, we made enough of an impression on each other through years of letters that we sought each other out on social media as adults.

Both Dawn and Shelby now have daughters, who will probably never get the opportunity to seek out pen pals the way I did (and probably shouldn't, if we're being honest). But if there's a safe way for them to find non-internet pen pals, I hope they get the chance to experience a letter-centric friendship.

In addition to the bonds you can form and the fun of getting mail, it can have a surprisingly significant impact on a career path. I might have not become a secretary in any sense of the word, but today, my job centers around reading about other people's lives and writing about my own — and my enthusiasm for that was arguably born of my years as dozens of people's pen pal.