When first-grader Wyatt Knauss revealed to his class that his dad had recently been deployed to Afghanistan, his teacher, Whitney Henry, knew she wanted to do something to make the separation less painful.
“He really opened up about it,” Mrs. Henry recalled. “So I started looking for a way to make it a positive experience for him.” She broached the idea of a class pen pal exchange to Wyatt’s mom, Courtney Knauss, who then asked her husband. Lieutenant Commander Chris Knauss, an ocean away at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, loved the idea. Surprisingly, so did the 20 other soldiers he invited to write to the students in his son’s class at Rachel Carson Elementary School (RCES). “At first I thought they agreed to do it because it was hard to say no when I was standing there, asking them,” he said. “And maybe there was a little bit of that at first, but after they got their first letters, they were actually really excited.”
Each student in Mrs. Henry’s class was assigned a pen pal. Soon, 21 new and unusual long-distance friendships were formed, the letter exchange becoming a source of comfort and a learning experience for soldier and student alike.
“Getting handwritten letters that someone has actually touched means so much more than an email or a text,” Lt. Knauss observed, noting that the soldiers have developed a deep sense of connection to the kids. “It reminds them of how much they miss their families.”
Mrs. Henry helped the first graders write their letters. She gave them a template and a few rules to follow: They have to say thank you and they have to ask a question. Other than that, they are free to express themselves.
The adults are careful to keep things simple and oriented toward first graders, but even so, surprising connections are made.
“Are you having a good time?” one student asked in an initial letter. “Well, we are helping people,” the soldier replied, “so in that sense, yes.” “Are you scared?” another student wondered. “We prepared a lot before we came here, just like you prepare for a test, so we don’t have to be scared,” came the reply.
The soldiers, all medical personnel on a 10-month deployment at the airfield’s hospital, enjoy sending the students pictures of themselves, patches from their uniforms, and even Afghan currency—mementos that bring the faraway experience of a soldier closer to home for the children.
“One of the best things about this project is that it’s teaching the kids compassion,” Mrs. Henry says. “They really understand now what Wyatt is going through and they have discovered that they have a lot in common with the soldiers.”
The students enjoyed an additional learning experience last month when Lt. Knauss sent them a flag that he had flown at Kandahar Air Base in honor of their class. In a special ceremony, the entire class watched as Wyatt (age 7) and his brother Roman (age 9) raised the same flag on the RCES flagpole. Courtney Knauss held up a phone so her husband could watch via FaceTime.
“Wyatt is so proud of his dad,” Mrs. Henry said. “Just seeing him smile makes it all worth it.”