When I was in third grade, each kid in my class wrote to a student in China. We were trying to meet pen pals. I don’t remember if I ever heard back from my new Chinese BFF, but I can say that a true pen-palship was never formed.
I always wanted a pen pal. To this day it seems such a romantic notion, the idea of getting to know someone through letters. Entering the blogosphere has actually resulted in some friendships via email—I correspond with other writers and readers and get to know people I’ve never met—though I wouldn’t give them full pen pal status.
Still, I was pretty excited last weekend when I finally came face to face with one of my virtual friends.
Lauren is a fellow blogger and, from what I could tell online, kind of a rock star. We connected when I first started this site and over the last eight months have written back and forth, been virtual study buddies, and helped each other with writing projects. When she emailed that she’d be in Chicago and would I like to meet for coffee, the answer was obviously “well, duh.”
And meeting her felt like reuniting with an old friend. We definitely had to fill in some blanks, but conversation picked up pretty seamlessly. If not old friends than it was definitely, like, a fifth date.
It’s fun making long-distance, email-only friends as an adult. But imagine how integral a role pen pals can play for teenagers. When it feels like no one at home understands you, there’s this girl, seemingly worlds away, to whom you can say anything. And from what you can tell, she totally gets you. It’s the stuff of lifelong friendship.
I recently met a woman who has still never met her best friend. They connected some ten years ago on a Seventeen magazine message board. From there they started emailing and now they write back and forth on a blog. It’s a fascinating read really, a voyeuristic look into a real-life BFFship. Except, they’ve never even talked on the phone.
Part of me is totally confused by the whole thing—why not just dial her up or, if they have the means, buy a plane ticket? They’re both in the U.S.—while another, larger part is totally jealous. Here’s someone who doesn’t know the key players in your life and can act as unconditional support. As for not meeting, maybe it’s about not fixing what’s not broken.
I wonder if a teenager today would even know what a pen pal is. It’s such an outdated practice. Now everyone’s connected via Facebook and Twitter and Foursquare, writing letters—even emails!—is practically pre-historic.
And yet I think a pen pal could be the most valuable friendship I never had.