When Daryl Hutchins first assigned his students to write a “letter to my future self,” he thought it would be a high-motivation, low-input activity to fill the last hectic few weeks of the school year. Little did he realize it would not only become a crowning achievement of his teaching career, but also have a deep impact on those students and their families for years to come.
That much was brought home to Hutchins over a year ago when he delivered an unopened letter to the family of one of his former students, Aaron Vickers, who had tragically been killed at age 19 in a drive-by shooting in Stockton in 2002. The letter ended up generating local media coverage that culminated with a national segment on the CBS news show Inside Edition. Hutchins returns the sealed letters to his students after 15 years. He didn’t learn of Vickers’ death until the young man’s former classmates at Plaza Robles High School in Stockton had received their letters. Now teaching continuation high school in the Plumas County Office of Education, Hutchins was stunned by the news that Vickers had died just two years after high school. Hutchins was able to track down Vickers’ mother and sister to tell them he had a letter from Vickers that he wanted to deliver to them.
“They were blown away, in tears and in shock,” says Hutchins, now a Plumas County Teachers Association member. In fact, it was Vickers’ family who contacted local media about the letter.
“ It’s given me extreme joy in keeping track of these students. Of everything I’ve produced in the classroom, I consider this to be the best.”
Less than two weeks later, a TV crew from Inside Edition drove Vickers’ mom and sister some four hours from Stockton to Portola, where the read the four-page letter to
Hutchins’ current students.
“It made us smile, it made us cry, it made us laugh again,” Vickers’ mother, Tyra Vickers-Kearney, tells Hutchins in the TV segment. “I loved the whole letter. I loved the fact that it is a letter from him. I’m still in awe over that.”
Vickers touched on several topics in his high school letter to himself, from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson being “the man” in wrestling to a political prediction that maybe in the year 2010, there would be a black vice president. For Vickers’ family, the letter will be a precious remembrance of their son for years to come. Hutchins has made the assignment to his middle school, high school and continuation students for most of his 29 years of teaching. Each day during the last weeks of school, he asks them to write a page on school issues, friendship issues, current events, goals for the future, their view of life, a shout-out to classmates, and personal things they want to include. Despite his assurances to students that they will want to have this letter in the future, in truth, not everyone completes the assignment.
Those who do, turn in their letters to Hutchins with a self-addressed envelope. He himself never reads the letters, but bundles them in several layers of plastic and duct tape to preserve them, and then labels them. Over the years, with the help of classroom aides, he has developed a master file of 650 letters, of which 350 have been successfully returned to the student writers. The dawn of Facebook several years ago has made the distribution task much easier, he says.
Besides Vickers’ letter, several other poignant letters have surfaced. One was from another deceased student, whose daughter learned from the letter that she had already picked out her future daughter’s name. While Hutchins has learned of the deaths of several students, he has also heard from many others who went on to have happy and successful lives.
“They grow up,” he says. “They may not be CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, but they go on to get good jobs and raise families.”
At least one former student from Hutchins’ all-time “class from hell” sent a note of apology for his past behavior and what the class put Hutchins through. That realization came to the former student only after having children of his own.
Since letters are stashed away for 15 years, the rewards from the project are delayed. But then, Hutchins points out, he is able to learn about his former students’ later lives — something not every teacher is able to do. Although he has received many complimentary Facebook messages from these students, Hutchins says he is most touched by the fact that they are so surprised he kept his promise to hold and deliver the letters. “I’m a big proponent of this assignment,” Hutchins says. “It’s given me extreme joy in keeping track of these students. Of everything I’ve produced in the classroom, I consider this to be the best.”
Watch the Inside Edition segment.