When You Lose Something You Can’t Replace

Are you sick of hearing about our house fire yet?

Don’t worry. I am, too. But bear with me through a final post on the subject.

It’s one I have avoided because I hate to cry when I type. But in the end, this isn’t about me. Not directly.

It’s about an assignment I did with my senior English classes for more than a decade.

On the last day of school, I had my students write letters to themselves which they stamped, addressed and turned in to me. I stored the letters for five years. Then I mailed them back.

My hope was that at the age of 22 or 23, they would read their own words and remember:

What their goals had been. Their interests and concerns. What made them the most happy. What they wished might differ in their lives later on.

Occasionally one of them would ask What if we move?

Good question.

I had them add alternate addresses in the return-label spot. They’d write email contacts below the seal. I even searched for a few students on Facebook when their envelopes came back to me.

But I wasn’t willing to sacrifice the assignment because it had flaws. I knew some kids would never receive their letters, but I decided that the benefits outweighed the costs.

Then our garage caught fire in January and we lost everything inside. A lot of junk, I’ll admit. But also family pictures and old yearbooks. Boxes from my childhood. Writing journals. Diaries. My wedding dress.

Treasures that remain irreplaceable.

The loss that hurts most, however, is the final box of letters from the Calabasas High School Class of 2008.

This was their year to receive their letters. And I’m so very sorry that they’re gone.

I’m well aware that some students wrote nonsense simply to complete the assignment. Others probably forgot their efforts the moment they handed in their envelopes.

But many took pains to be meaningful. They included poetry and artwork. Phone numbers, prom pictures. A few even contacted me with new addresses, anticipating the day I’d send their letters.

And now they are gone.

Believe me, if I could save only one thing destroyed that day, it would be this box of letters. But since I cannot, I’m writing them this five-year-letter of my own in which I’ll share a few lessons I’ve learned as I move forward in this life.

So here goes.

Dear students,

It’s Mrs. Gardner. Your 12th grade English teacher. You know. The blond lady who was crazy about Hamlet. And all of you. The one who tried to memorize everyone’s name on the first day of school.

Yeah. That one.

I’m going to start with the usual old-person advice for the future.

Examine your life. Change what needs changing and fix what is broken. Important detail: Don’t wait for someone else to do this for you or it will never happen.

Smile and cry and laugh a lot. Both by yourself and then again with others.

Say I’m sorry if you do wrong and when people apologize to you, try to be gracious.

Read a lot, of course.

And get regular check-ups. Eat good food. Keep active but also rest when you are tired. In short, carry your body through this world as if it were precious cargo. Because it is.

You are important to me (still and always) so I ask you first to be safe with your health.

But then I also want you to promise you won’t be safe with your heart.


Take risks and welcome extraordinary opportunities; don’t settle for adequate surfaces. Dig deep until you find what moves the ground beneath you. Love spectacularly, in your loudest voice, ignoring whispered fears that your sentiment won’t be returned.

You are loved already and more than you may realize.

I guarantee that, at the moment of your birth, you began collecting hopeless admirers. So admire them right back; then invite newcomers to join your pack.

Surround yourself with people and things and experiences that are irreplaceable to you, despite the knowledge that such surrender carries with it the potential for great loss.

When you lose something you can’t replace, it means you have connected outside yourself—to someone, some moment, some dream—at a level that cannot be recreated.

But this also means your joys on every other day have been that much brighter and more meaningful for having risked such pain in the first place.

Above all, seek out and spread your light continuously. 

Because if that’s not the purpose of life, I don’t know what is.

         With great pride and respect,

          That crazy Hamlet lady.

(But you can call me Julie, now. Please.)

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50 thoughts on “When You Lose Something You Can’t Replace

  1. There may be some much older people who didn’t write letters who also needed to hear this. Thanks.

  2. thank you for sharing this today … funny, in spite of being way older … these are words i too needed to read today. sigh. so very much. love always my dear friend of the beautiful words and the caring heart xxx

  3. Lori

    Why couldn’t you have been my high school English teacher (aside from the fact that you would’ve been 15 and that may have been awkward)?!?!? What lucky kids….


  4. You have spread your light all the way to my corner of the world, Julie.
    I am so sorry for the loss of those letters (and your home). You are such a gem, they are lucky to have had you as a teacher.

  5. I wish I had an English teacher like you when I was in High School…”take risks and welcome extraordinary opportunities”…I wonder who I would have become if I’d heard that advice.

  6. And you think I can read while crying? Sheesh! Also, dammit. Just dammit to it all. To your loss, to your students’ loss of their original words. But, oh, the increase. The students get to read meaningful words, even if they aren’t their own and you get to lift up young adults who may be receiving your words just when they needed them most. I am usually a doom and gloom, what’s it all for, I’ma just have another drink and wallow kind of person, but this? This makes me happy and see light. (And nope, not tired of hearing about the fire if that’s what you continue to need to talk about.)

  7. I’m just going to pretend this is written to the PCHS class of 1993. Best letter ever.

  8. I saw you had a post out on FB and I jumped on it! Not sick of the fire. Not sick of you. 🙂

    And this was solid advice coming from an old, old, OLD lady. Ancient. Same age as me.


  9. Di

    Oh Julie…I started to cry when I read the heading in the email regarding this post. This is an assignment that has so much meaning to all of us who continue to use it with our seniors. The seniors from 2008 will always remember you and think of you fondly as they heed your wonderful advice!

  10. What a very cool thing you did for your students (the assignment). And this letter to them now? So beautiful. Such good advice. It is bittersweet to get to an age where you KNOW stuff, really know stuff because you have experienced things that changed you.

  11. What a difficult loss, Julie. But what a beautiful letter to replace those precious ones. This will mean so much to them. I suspect it will come to them at a time in their lives when they are questioning everything, and for many, a time where they are laid low, struggling to set out into the brutal world. This letter may very well be the thing that helps set them free. Seeing your own past hopes and dreams for yourself? Well, it’s lovely and I’m sure would’ve been treasured, but sometimes it can be sad when you realize you haven’t realized those dreams. But your letter? It is hope that carries on and on, dreams for them that can’t fade or burn away away because they are wrapped in unconditional love. It’s priceless and everlasting.

  12. Crying. You make my world a happier place. I thank God for this crazy inter web that led me to your blog. Although I have never been in your real presence I feel like I have . I know I adore you. One day I hope to hug you around the neck. Still dealing with restoration from our fire and contractors but so far everyone has been amazing. This house fire has ended up blessing me in so many ways
    And on a sad note my wedding dress survived. LOL
    That 1981 icon is here if you need it … Ill gladly ship it to you. None of my girls would wear it at their weddings. Brats !

  13. Cameron Halling

    I’m sorry to hear that you lost so much in a fire, including the letter I wrote back in 08. I don’t even remember what I wrote, but I’m sure it’s not as inspiring as your post. Hopefully you remember even half as much as I remember you, crazy Hamlet lady. “This above all: to thine ownself be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” I’ll always remember that line, even if it was said by a hypocrite.

    I have a law school final in an hour…but thanks for all the fond memories!

  14. Thank god I’m not wearing mascara right now. Because. I’m. bawling.

    Oh Julie, of course I know all about your letters and I’m so heartbroken for you. But your students have surely learned one of life’s very tough lessons by now – that there are some things beyond our control. And sometimes things that can never be replaced are lost forever.

    But YOUR letter – pure gold my friend. Sage advice so beautifully put. And I swear, every time I read your beautiful words I sort of wonder why you’re friends with me. (Or at least why you ever read what I have to say.) But every time we get together and laugh our asses off and say, “Me too, me too,” I’m so glad you are. Friends with me that is.

    And even if I didn’t have the privilege of knowing you I’d still read your gorgeous words. They make me laugh or cry. Every. Single. Time.

  15. You truly are one of the kindest, warmest, most thoughtful people I know. We all should be so lucky as to have those teachers that touched our lives in a profound way, clearly you such a teacher. And such a writer, I might add.

  16. You are amazing, Julie, with such a huge heart. I admire you so much.

  17. Oh, Julie, this was good. Thoughts on loss and love and moving towards light. All good, good stuff.

    I wish I had you as a teacher. I bet you were FAB.

    xoxo Tarja

  18. Of all the letters I have read on the internet this one just took first place. It is by far the most heartfelt, beautiful thing I have read in a long, long time.

    That being said, I wish you peace and light, my friend.

  19. I have had some teachers who blew my brain right open with amazingness, and some teachers who loved me through some ugly growing up stuff, and right now, I kind of wish I could bend time and space and be one of your students, too.

    Though in fairness, I’m pretty sure you just taught the whole Internet the meaning of life.

    Love you and your huge heart, Julie C.

  20. julie

    I simply adore all you people.
    Yes, you.

    Please consider me a permanent admirer, a member of your pack who’s always there whether you can see me or not.

    (Also, please take out whatever sounds vaguely creepy about that last statement and go be happy.)

    Yes, you.


  21. We did this same writing assignment in my senior year creative writing class. I loved it. I never got my letter though and my parents didn’t move. I often think about that letter and wonder what I said and wonder if I lived up to the expectations I had of myself. Mrs. McCue, the teacher who had that assignment, was my inspiration to pursue creative writing as a major in college and reading your post makes me hope that she felt the same way about those letters as you do and as I do.

  22. “When sorrows come, they come not single spies. But in battalions!”

    I’m so sorry you lost those lettersbut this post is gorgeous.

    Hang in there. Someone as wonderful as you will get more good from this bad.

  23. This touched my heart more than I can say. My favorite teacher in high school was Miss Dennis, my English teacher. She taught me in my Sophomore, Junior and Senior years, and she was our Coach for the Drama Club. Life was rough for me in my teen years with an alcoholic Mom, and Miss Dennis seemed to always know the right word to lift me up when I most needed a lift. When I ran away from home the week of my graduation, my best friend said she sat at the ceremony and cried for me. Special lady. Just recently, I thought of googling her. Don’t know why I n
    ever thought of it before. She died of diabetes complications in 2008, but had lived a very full life. I was so proud to read she had gotten her Phd and went on to teach at a university. They had a picture of her, too, and I cried for her. My point is, Julie, that you mean a lot more to your students than they probably ever show. Very proud to know you, if even only virtually.

  24. Oh Julie! I think you just made every single person reading this letter wish they were part of that graduating class. How are you so wise? Protect my health but not my heart. Risk that. It’s terrifying, but you are so very right my friend.

    (And just to clarify; I could never be sick of your words. No matter the subject, your heart is there, and it’s a beautiful thing.)

  25. I am so sorry that the letters are gone but what an amazing assignment.

  26. Hw DARE you make me cry at 9 am on such a beautiful day?

    Because this:

    “When you lose something you can’t replace, it means you have connected outside yourself – to someone, some moment, some dream – at a level that cannot be recreated.”

    That is truth, baby.

    And I didn’t see it coming. So, as usual, you sucker punched me.

    Julie, I’m so grateful that you and your family are moving forward. And this letter to that lucky class of kids that had you as a teacher in 2008. They are so very lucky, so very lucky. I hope they all find you and find your words. That everyone finds your words.

    How could we ever grow sick of you?


  27. What a lucky group of kids to have had you. I’m ashamed to say I was one of the students who wrote a half assed letter to myself in high school just to complete the assignment, but I’m smart enough now to apply your advice to my life today.

  28. Damn you for making this old lady cry. xo

  29. Emily Neumann

    Julie – you rock. I’m so glad to just know you and feel lucky to read anything you write.

  30. Oh Miss Julie, if only you had been my teacher.

    These words will inspire all who read them to do better, be better, and love more; not just those students from your last class.

    You. Are. Amazing.

  31. This is beautiful and I am crying. (And I don’t cry easily. Really, I’m usually made of stone.)

  32. I want to be you when I grow up.

  33. Mike Shai

    First of all, I’m sorry your garage went on fire, I’m glad everyone is safe.
    I was really looking forward to reading my 5-year letter this summer because so much has changed for me over a short amount of time. More than I could ever imagine. I vaguely remember writing about family problems, girl problems, my problems, whatever problems. In a sense, it is kind of a blessing that my letter was burned because then I won’t have to relive all those “problems”. They are in the past, and I can move forward with life. Although it would have been a cool novelty to keep in a drawer for years to come, I am almost happier not reading it and leaving it as a vague memory.
    Thank you for a great senior year. Hope life is good on your end.


  34. Alice

    A friend of a student of yours posted this on Facebook. I’m not from Calabasas. I don’t know you or any of your students. But I’m a week away from graduating college and I’m in tears because this is exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you so much — you are an amazingly kind person and a wonderful teacher.

  35. Dina Nooh

    I’m so sorry to hear about your lost possessions. You were an amazing senior year teacher! Your letter is so inspiring and undoubtedly better than anything I could have wrote to myself at 18. Thank you for it 🙂

  36. This “When you lose something you can’t replace, it means you have connected outside yourself – to someone, some moment, some dream – at a level that cannot be recreated.

    But this also means your joys on every other day have been that much brighter and more meaningful for having risked such pain in the first place.” is beautiful. And true.

    I am not tired of hearing about the fire – not at all. It is big and impacting. There is loss. I feel honored that we get to share in it just a little.

    You are gold, my friend.

  37. Loss is difficult, even when people say “they are only things”. I’m sorry things still keep punching you when you realize another missing piece. The students won’t remember what they wrote but they will always remember you.

  38. france

    Ah Julie, still giving even when something was taken away from you.

    Awesome letter, wish someone would have told me some of those things when I was younger.

  39. Oh, Julie, this is so beautiful and heartbreaking. What an amazing teacher you were and an amazing person to think that the hardest thing to lose was a box of letters for your students. How thoughtful and lucky they are to have you still thinking of them.
    I love this assignment and would have been truly honored if a teacher of mine had ever thought to do something like this.
    I think in all that you have lost, what you have gained is a glimpse into the beauty of your heart. Or perhaps, (I hope), you already knew it was beautiful. I am so thankful you have decided to share it with us. xoxo

  40. julie

    You are all so good to me.

    I want to thank everyone for these supportive comments and send a special thanks to those students who have reached out to me in the wake of this post.

    I wish I had the right words to express how lucky I am and how grateful I feel.

    Hopefully you all just know.

  41. Ann

    Tears in mine eyes, Hamlet lady.

    Never stop writing what’s in your heart–no matter how many fire posts it takes.

  42. Probably a greater gift than their own words would have been.


  43. Sherri

    Sobs…I remember when you first wrote about these letters and I thought the gesture and exercise was so meaningful. And I know how your heart must hurt over the loss of those last letters. But what you wrote here is beautiful, my friend, and has me in tears. xoxo

  44. Julie,
    Wow! First of all, I am so sorry for your loss. A classmate of my daughter’s recently loss their house to a fire and I have seen how devastating it has been for their family.

    Secondly, your letter to your English class—absolutely brilliant! Their letters may be lost, but having you as a teacher, I am sure was/is a gift that will last them a lifetime!!

    Thank you for your words of inspiration and truth!

  45. Beautiful. Just beautiful.

  46. There’s a special place in my heart for teachers like you. You make such a difference in the world, and I bet you don’t realize the half of it.

    Those letters hold a lot of meaning for me, because my son’s very dear friend died in a car accident at 17, and a middle school teacher had done this to send to them for senior year. I was there the day her mom got the letter and she read it to me. It was such a blessing to hear her own voice again, even if only in a letter.

    God bless you, and all your kind.

  47. Hi Julie,

    What a wonderful post! I’m a friend of Charlene Ross and she suggested your blog to me. We have something in common: I, too, am an English teacher, and I have done the “5 Years From Now” letter twice. In fact, I just sent out my batch from 2008. Apparently, I had written one to myself too, and had it mailed to my parents’ address. It was filled with exhortations not to eat so many Oreos and to not be too despairing if I hadn’t found a husband or had any children yet. (I did find a husband. I did have a child. I still eat a LOT of Oreos.) I’m sorry for your loss, but know that you have given your students an incredible gift in that letter.

    I would like to talk with you sometime about how you balance teaching and writing. I am a middle school teacher, so I have had to create an “alter ego” under which to blog and publish.

    Please visit my new blog at abbythewriter.wordpress.com. My post titled “Most Likely to Succeed” will definitely be appreciated by a teacher.


  48. This is a treasure.

    I will print it out to save for each of my 3 children.

    Thank you.

  49. Diane

    Oh Julie, I wept when I first read this post as I am weeping now. My seniors will be writing their letters soon, 23 days to be exact, and I will think of you when they do. Some of them are already reading Letters for Scarlet and hopefully will be at the book signing tomorrow night. <3

  50. abster515@yahoo.com

    You are amazing. Beautiful post. XO

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