Desks in empty classroom like that of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley

Four Years Ago

(Below is a letter I wrote my first class of senior-level government students. We lived through the election of 2016 together, and the day afterwards, I had them write letters to themselves that I saved for four years. Last week, I sent them those letters, along with this one. It’s been edited for privacy and brevity.)

Almost four years ago, on the day after the election, I looked out at all of you from the front of my classroom and I wasn’t quite sure what to say. We were all surprised at how the election had turned out, and I knew there was a lot of emotion in the air. I had spent weeks preparing for a different outcome and the lesson plans I had ready to go were sitting on the desk in front of me. The only problem was that they didn’t make any sense anymore.

So I decided to have you write a letter to your future selves. I hadn’t ever done something like that before and I’ve never done it since. I told you I wouldn’t read what you wrote, and I have kept my promise. For four years, those letters sat on the top of my bookshelf by my desk with a note that said, “send to students in October 2020.”

And here it is: October 2020. You are finishing college soon and/or have already started working. You are an adult now – a for real adult – and you can vote in this election even if you couldn’t vote in the last one. The gravity of this first Tuesday in November may weigh on you even more than it did back in 2016.

So before you open the letter you wrote to yourself, think back to how you felt four years ago. Where did you imagine you’d be living? What did you think you’d be doing? Who did you envision would be surrounding you in your daily life?

I bet you didn’t imagine this life you’re living in 2020. Maybe you got some of it right – maybe you did become a chemistry major and maybe you’re still living in New York City. But maybe you got some of it wrong – maybe you broke up with that person you thought you’d marry or you took a career turn you never envisioned. Regardless, I bet you couldn’t have fully imagined all of the events of 2020.

Of course, we can never predict the future. We never really know what’s next. We can dream and plan and work really hard and that can all be useful in crafting a life we want to live. But we also have to be ready for some things that are unexpected. 

As you may have heard, less than a year after you graduated I lost my husband Shawn to a quick-moving form of metastatic colon cancer. (Maybe some of you remember him, as he visited our school a few times and I think even spoke in our class.) As you can imagine, that time period was very difficult for me and my three young kids. Shawn’s death was the wild card I didn’t see coming, and my healing process was….a process.

But I’m still here, teaching and living a life that has so many joyful pieces. Back in early 2018 as I was facing the world alone, it was impossible for me to imagine that one day my life could be happy again. And yet, it is. 

I tell you all this because I think sometimes we can despair when things don’t go well in our personal lives, in our professional lives, or in our country. There can be a lot of disappointment and deep sadness in this life. But there is also beauty and joy, and there are a lot of ways that you can change things. Maybe it’s that you decide, right now, to pick up the phone and call someone in your family and thank them for all they’ve done for you or tell them that you really love them. Or maybe it’s that you pick up that same phone and call on behalf of a campaign that you care deeply about. Or maybe it’s that you commit to taking that job that you know will be hard and pay little but will make a real difference in the community where you live.

I don’t know what you’ll do with the years in front of you. And really, you don’t know either. We can all make big plans, and take guesses about what the future holds, but we can’t really know.

But that doesn’t matter, does it? What matters is that you try your best, and when things aren’t going well, you keep moving through life in the best way that you can. It may be messy and you’ll definitely face challenges. But you will get through it – I promise. There is so much good out there in the world and you are not alone.

If I close my eyes, I can see our classroom back in 2016. We had no idea what was coming, but we could feel tension in the air. And yet, I felt better after we wrote those letters that day. I felt better because I knew there was hope for our world.

That hope I felt? It was because of all of you.