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When summer camp forbids laptops, there's always letter writing

As I was writing a letter to our son Will, who is away at boarding camp for seven weeks, I felt a vague sense of historical reenactment – as if I were firing a musket or cooking over a hearth.

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Original letters of John Adams, left, written to his wife Abigail from Philadelphia on July 3, 1776, and Thomas Jefferson, right, written to Adams from Monticello on March 25, 1826 are shown at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston July 2, 1996. The two signers of the Declaration of Independence shared a years-long correspondence.

Elise Amendola, Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society/AP/file

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My wife and I recently dropped off our 12-year-old son at a seven-week summer boarding camp, and as part of the program, Will had to leave his laptop at home. The camp also greatly limits phone use as another way to reduce distractions. We like those rules, although we wondered, on the drive to camp, how Will could pass along the occasional story or bit of news to friends and family.

As our trip was nearing its finish, we remembered an old solution. Will could always mail us a handwritten letter.

I pulled into a bookstore not far from the camp and took our son to the stationery section. Standing at a wire rack and surveying the merchandise, we quickly realized that we were out of luck. All we could see were boxes of pastel paper decorated with showy flowers and lacy monograms. The display was clearly telling my son that correspondence was something done only by ladies sipping their tea. I might as well have asked him to buy a pack of doilies or a bottle of perfume. He balked, swearing off the thought of such literary cross-dressing.

We skipped the stationery idea that day, although back at home, my wife found a pack of sensible white paper and plain envelopes at an office supply store and mailed them to Will, along with a book of stamps and two letters from both of us. We hope that he’ll like our letters as much as the one from his grandmother that he’s kept for years – a note he still takes out and rereads from time to time.

Not long before she died, my mother wrote Will a letter telling him the usual grandmotherly stuff about how smart and good he was. He loves the sentiment of the writing, of course, but also the handwriting itself. The high loops and precarious slant of the script brings my mother to life in a way that an email never could. An email efficiently carries text, but a handwritten letter paints an image of language.

Or so I was reminded during Will’s camp orientation for parents, when the program’s art instructor assured us that any child could learn to draw. “All of us started as artists when we wrote our first words on paper,” he told the audience. “When we write, we’re making pictures of words.”

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