While working virtually, some of our 11th grade students recently had the opportunity to correspond with best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-nominated author James Lee Burke.

Read the students’ letters and Mr. Burke’s responses here. Explaining the impact of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is 11th Grade English teacher Kacey Kowars:

I have been teaching juniors at TFA for twelve years now. The 11th grade is a critical year in a student’s life. I love helping them learn the nuances of critical reading and watching them develop as writers. I am 62 years old and felt a bit of anxiety about remote teaching. It is outside of my comfort zone.

Dr. Whitaker and Dr. Grove were critical in helping teachers adapt quickly to our new environment. It has gone seamlessly for me. I had a wonderful experience last week that would not have occurred had this ‘new normal’ not happened.

James Lee Burke, one of the country’s finest authors, wrote an essay of his experience as a child during Pearl Harbor, and how our country became unified in a beautiful way. I have known Mr. Burke for 25 years and we have become good friends. I sent his essay via email to my students and asked them to read it. We discussed it in class the next day and they were very moved by the essay.

I told my students that their weekend assignment was to write a letter to Mr. Burke. I told them that if they wanted to ‘dig more deeply’ into their letters I would send a few of the best letters to Mr. Burke through the mail. Mr. Burke’s 40th novel will be published on May 26, 2020. He is 83 years old. His time is precious.

I began receiving the letters over the weekend and I was astounded at the depth and content of many of the letters. I knew that Mr. Burke would love hearing what younger people thought of his essay. On Saturday I sent him five letters to his personal email account, which I do not normally use–I deal with his publicists.

A few hours later I began receiving emails from Mr. Burke that were personally addressed to my students. Not only had he read the letters, but he also wrote a personal note to each of them. I forwarded the emails to the students and was delighted when they wrote back to me (amazed that Mr. Burke had written them notes). There was one file that did not go through on Saturday. I thanked Mr. Burke for his generosity and he told me he was going ‘stir crazy’ at his ranch in Montana. Taking that as permission, I sent him four more.

Late Sunday afternoon he sent me an email saying he still had not received the one file from Saturday. He told me, ”One thing I’ve learned, Kacey, is we can’t leave anyone out.” He said he would call that student and have her read him the letter if the file did not get through. The file did go through and he wrote her a beautiful note containing some impressive allusions.

I called Dr. Whitaker Sunday night and we decided we should share this story to illustrate how God can bless us in unexpected ways when we do not anticipate them. I had extra time, my students had spare time, and James Lee Burke took his time to encourage our young students.

Here are a few of the letters with Mr. Burke’s response. 

Kacey Kowars