I Will Always Write Back: Penpals in Person

Tej Shah, Contributing Writer

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Every year, the Morris Hills Regional District runs a district-wide summer read for all grade levels. This year’s selection was I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alfirenka and Martin Ganda. On Friday, October 4th, Morris Hills’ students were able to meet Caitlin and learn how their penpal correspondences have changed their lives.

This book primarily shows the transformation of an innocent girl into an independent young woman who now realizes the harshness and cruelty present within the world. Caitlin begins her correspondence with a young African boy in Zimbabwe named Martin when prompted to write a letter to a pen pal during one of her classes in 7th grade. Unlike the other people in her class, she maintained correspondence with her true friend in Africa for years to come. Through her letters with Martin, Caitlin was able to share her true personality and learn more about Martin’s life. It was eye-opening for Caitlin to see the hardship that he was facing and how little acts of generosity from her could make such a significant difference in the lives of Martin and his family. From Martin’s end, he is ever grateful for every small act of kindness that Caitlin and her family have provided to him, which allowed for his family to survive during  tough economic times. As a result of Caitlin’s help, Martin is able to wear distinct American clothes and attend school. Endeavoring to make his mother’s dream come true and wanting to make a name for himself, Martin succeeds academically and is finally able to come to the United States and study at a university. Caitlin was able to learn about life outside her own confines and Martin learned how to persist despite struggles. 

At the assembly, students were able to learn from Caitlin about her journey. From understanding the struggles Martin faced to understanding how Caitlin’s understanding of the world view changed, the assembly was pivotal in cementing the conviction that small acts of kindness can go a long way. Caitlin expanded on the realization about how fortunate she was in terms of her housing, explaining how she was initially confused when Martin did not have a large home like hers, assuming that Martin must be unhappy but unlucky. Yet, Martin was happy with his position in life, as many others in his community did not even have a roof over the heads and were forced to sleep under the trees. 

One winner of this year’s essay contest was 11th grader Yuvanshu Agarwal, who wrote a piece titled, “Education: The Wings Made of Hope and the Eyes that Can See.”  According to Mrs. Toriello, focus of the essay explored how “while education affects us intellectually, it also enlighten us more deeply, opening our eyes to the dynamic of the world around us so we can live and breath the struggles that elude or personal bubble.”

The other winner of this year’s essay contest was 9th grader Aarush Rompally, who wrote a piece titled, “The Bird and the Box.” The essay suggested that “rather than unleashing negativity to plague yourself and others,  to spread just a fragment of your hope around you, to wherever it is most needed, and change the world into one where hope roams freely, in the hearts, minds, and souls of all.”

Morris Hills Senior Kunal Deb also resonates with the theme of the book.  “I thought the inclusion of Martin’s perspective was really good because of how everyone got a detailed account of what it was like where he grew up compared to living in America, and how readers were able to empathize with Caitlin while she tried to help Martin. I thought the main takeaway was that it’s important to put yourself in the shoes of the people around you.”

Overall, Mrs. Toriello believes that this book “allowed us to pause for a moment and think about what we have and what others might not have.  It encouraged us to think about how one single act of kindness can change the course of someone’s life. It was proof that is doesn’t take much to make a significant impact on the world.