Friday, May 1, 2009

Cherche Severine Désespérément

My seventh-grade teacher somehow got the notion into her head that her twenty-four students deserved to have penpals. No, not recently. This happened when I was actually in seventh grade, and for the life of me I could not say what led her to this conclusion. This teacher — who I’ve previously described as a woman who taught us about geography, medieval times and hot air balloons at the exclusion of any other subjects, forcing most of us to re-take pre-algebra as eighth-graders — somehow contacted someone in charge of similarly aged youths in France and matched them up with us. We on the Californian end of the deal wrote the first letters, with the expectation being that the French children would respond and tell us about the mundane details in their life. American seventh-graders, it was apparently presumed, would be enthralled by lists of favorite sports and activities enumerated in broken English. This, it was decided, would help establish a lifelong relationship of forced sharing and forced interest.

For reasons I have never understood, I was the only student who received a response. Perhaps the 12-year-old me produced a particularly attractive class photo that year. Though I still have the letter somewhere, I’ve no clue where it could be. I can, however, offer a few details from it:
  • The girl’s name was either Severine Collin or Collin Severine.
  • She bore a striking resemblance to a girl in my class. This girl had been accused of stuffing her bra — whether accurately or not, I don’t know — and had therefore acquired the persistent nickname “Stuffy.”
  • Though I can’t remember what Severine Collin — or, again, Collin Severine — attempted to communicate about herself, I do remember that she decorated the binder paper she had written upon with cut-outs from a ladies’ clothing catalogue. Everyone was wearing blue. The only explanation offered was something along the lines of “See how nice dress the French!”
Clearly this mystery demanded a solution.

This girl would cross my mind at the strangest times, most often when a computer with internet access was not conveniently nearby. Finally, a few weeks back, I thought of Serveine Collin/Collin Severine while I was logged into Facebook. I searched for either variation on her name. More than thirty results came up, with nearly all of them being possible grown-up versions of the girl who sent me her class photo back in 1995. Who’s to say what that girl could have grown into in all this time? Would she have reason to become a woman with a daringly short haircut and huge sunglasses? The curly-haired woman with the fat baby? The scowler with the eyebrow piercing? I couldn’t say, remembering so little from the letter and, also, feeling that my twelve-year-old self had little bearing on what I am today. (This post would seem to contradict that statement, of course, but I swear that it is true.)

Each of the women received the following letter:

You probably do not know me. I live in California. Around 1995, my school attempted a penpal program with a class of French children. I was 12 at the time. I do not remember what city these children lived in. We sent letters, but the only French student to write back was a mine: a girl whose name I remember as either Severine Collin or Collin Severine. I recalled this girl’s letter some time ago and decided I’d see if I could find her on Facebook. Could this be you?

The letter was sent to me or anyone else from a Catholic elementary school in Hollister, California.

More than anything, I’m just curious to see if I remember this girl’s name correctly and if the power of the internet could help me find someone I never met and only barely interacted with so many years ago.

If none of this sounds familiar, please disregard this message.
So far, I’ve only received two responses, so I have to assume that the Severines and Collins just take their time in responding to Facebook messages.

The first: a sleepy-eyed girl whose profile photo crops out the man she had her arms around. I’ve always been puzzled by such photos. Why represent yourself with a photo that you’ve cut to exclude that you embraced, at least at one point in your life? This woman, a Severine, said only this:


More recently, a second response came in, this one, from a woman whose face bore a slightly weary expression.


So that’s two down. I feel like none of the others are likely to respond, but I wanted to write this, if only to document that I made the effort to fine this person, whatever her name is. Don’t ask what I’d plan to do if I found the right girl. Maybe I just want to test the power of the internet. Maybe I want to establish some connection with my past in a way that I haven’t consciously processed. Of course, I suppose that, on some level, I want to know why she wrote back when none of her classmates seemed to. Regardless, I’m still waiting.

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