Years ago when I was a producer in television, I recall that there were many discussions on how broadcasters could encourage younger viewers to have brand loyalty with a particular channel. The proposed idea was that if a broadcaster could successfully capture (strange choice of word, I know) a young audience then they were building the consumers of their future output. A rather obvious idea but one that appeared to work—well, at least for me, as I still look with particularly fondness on those shows that illuminated my childhood, and by association the broadcaster. The holy grail here was considered to be quality returnable series and quirky presenters with whom the young ‘uns could identify and grow up with.
I have been told publishers have similar discussions on inculcating brand loyalty through their authors. So you would think, therefore, that when a group of teenagers were set a project by their school teacher encouraging them to write a letter to their favorite author, that these chosen writers would leap at the chance to win over their future readers. Well apparently not, as one class of pupils at Xavier High School in New York found out in 2006, when their teacher (Ms. Lockwood) set this task, and letters were sent out to a variety of authors, with only one writer taking the time to reply.
Perhaps it will come as no surprise that it was the great pessimistic humanist Kurt Vonnegut who was the only author to write back. Who the others were, I don’t know, but I wonder if they’re still popular with readers at Xavier High? Anyway, Vonnegut took the time to read the letter, which asked requested that he make a personal appearance at Xavier. Vonnegut was then 84, “an old geezer” as he called himself, and demurred visiting the school. However, he did offer the five students and their teacher some fine advice on how best to experience life and to grow their souls. It’s a beautiful letter, giving some of the most inspiring advice any high school student could ask for.
November 5, 2006
Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:
I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.
What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.
Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.
Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?
Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.
God bless you all!
In 2014, Dogtooth Films made a short film based on Kurt Vonnegut’s letter, using pupils from Hove Park School.
Via Letters of Note