By Allison Ko, 16, Wilson HS (Hacienda Heights)
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Children stopped swinging on the jungle gym and ran toward the yellow bus, anxious to see their pen pals. I was nervous that Claire, my pen pal, wouldn’t like me or that I wouldn’t like her. Was she as excited to see me as these kids were? Would we get along?

Every year, my school and two local elementary schools participate in a pen pal program. Each month for the entire school year, each English honors sophomore exchanges letters with a third, fourth or fifth grade student. The pen pal program is something that’s been going on at my school for years. It’s become a tradition.

At first, the thought of exchanging letters with a cute youngster whose life was completely different from mine was exciting. Before exchanging letters, both the older and younger kids had to fill out a survey, so that we could get to know one another. There were questions on the survey like: What’s your favorite music? What is your favorite TV show? What are you hobbies? My pen pal Claire wrote that she enjoyed listening to hip-hop artist “Tupak” (That’s how she spelled it—I know, cute!) and loved to ride skateboards and catch bugs.

Whoa, CATCHING BUGS? I guess it’s something that kids like to do, but I don’t really enjoy digging in dirt and searching for critters.

And TUPAC? SKATEBOARDING? I don’t know a single thing about Tupac. And as for skating, I couldn’t ride a skateboard even if my life depended on it.

This worried me a little. I had no idea of what I was going to write to her, but I tried to make the best of things. I enjoyed writing the first couple of letters. Our teacher told us that we had to make our writing legible and appealing to little kids, meaning we had to type in big, bold fonts and add pictures. I was tired of the boring essays we had to write for class. The cute fonts and colorful pictures made me feel as if I was writing a children’s book.

An upperclassman in my class who participated in the program last year laughed as I wrote my letters to Claire.

“I love writing these things!” I said.

“You’ll say you care now,” he said, “but just wait a few months.”

As time went by, I began to understand what he meant. From the survey I knew Claire was totally different from me. As I read more of her letters, the difference only became more obvious. She sounded adventurous. She said she liked everything from wrestling to riding her Ripstik (a skateboard with wavy boards), and constantly asked if I did so myself. I, on the other hand, am not adventurous or athletic like she is. Claire and I were complete opposites of one another and I didn’t want to disappoint her. I was paranoid that I would say something she wouldn’t like to hear, or that I would seem boring. As months went by, the letters became a task. Sometimes, I even wrote them on the day they were due. I usually asked questions pertaining to the time of year. How was your day? Did you have a fun Thanksgiving? What kind of presents did you get for Christmas? What are some New Year’s resolutions? I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t try. …

The bus finally came to a halt.

I held on to my friend’s arm as we approached a bench full of wide-eyed children. I searched the group for Claire—the only image I had of her was a picture, so it was difficult to tell for sure which one was her. Then a small girl with large eyes, dark hair and a gap between her two front teeth shyly looked at me.

“Are you Claire?” I asked.

She nodded.

It was awkward in the beginning. Both of us were shy and didn’t know what to say to one other.

“Do you want to play on the playground?” I asked.

“Yeah!” she replied enthusiastically.

We ended up going through every obstacle course, climbing monkey bars and slipping down every slide. We chased each other and ran in the sand. I had forgotten how energetic kids were. They were running around the playground, swinging and yelling, while their tired pen pals were barely catching up with them, panting along the way. Even though I was exhausted, I wanted to play with Claire all day long. Next thing you know, we were holding hands and I felt as if I was with the little sister I never had.

Pretty soon, we got tired of the playground.

“Want to go catch bugs?” I asked.

As crazy as it sounds, I was willing to sit down in the dirt and look for crawlers inhabiting our “bug search” area. I didn’t care if it meant getting grass stains or having mud all over my hands.  I was too busy having fun with Claire.

For lunch we had hot dogs and watermelon. As we sat in the grass, Claire told me about her family and how she liked to watch wrestling on television with her brothers. She told me all sorts of stories—from her love of ketchup to her favorite first grade teacher to her loose teeth. No matter what she said, I found it delightfully comforting because she had this spunky personality that made me want to listen.

She also told me about one of the letters she wrote. She confessed that she had misspelled the word “favorite.” She explained that she didn’t know how to spell the word and had asked a couple of her friends, but they also had no idea. Claire didn’t want to ask her teacher so she took the word out of the letter.

“Sorry,” Claire apologized.

I had no idea what she was talking about, but told her that it was OK and she shouldn’t worry about it. I was surprised at how seriously she took the pen pal program, and I felt bad that I hadn’t done so myself. (As soon as I got home later that day, I found the letter and smiled at the barely erased penciling of the word, which she spelled as “fravrit.”)

My friend came running up to me and said, “Oh gosh, I think I lost my pen pal.”

Claire looked up at me and said, “I’m glad I didn’t lose you.”

 My heart melted right then and there and the only word running through my mind was “Awww.”

A lot of my friends didn’t think much of the pen pal picnic. When I told them how much fun I had, they were surprised. I had such a great time that I didn’t want to go back to school. After the picnic, we exchanged one more letter, in which Claire invited me to her house to see her dog and swim in her pool.

Meeting Claire taught me a big life lesson: sometimes our expectations don’t always turn out to be true! Plus, just because two people are complete opposites, doesn’t mean they won’t get along. In fact, it’s even more fun because you get to try things you never would have imagined yourself doing (catching bugs, for instance). After being stressed from AP testing and the dullness that school can bring, the pen pal picnic was like this really big stress reliever. I’m so glad that I had the chance to meet her.