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 more about what prompted the correspondence in our Blog Post from Dr. Whitaker and 11th Grade English Teacher Kacey Kowars here.
Below are the letters written by 11th Grade English students to author Burke along with his personal responses to their letters. Read Burke’s original essay that prompted the writing assignment here.
Dear James Lee Burke,
I have recently read your post about our country’s dark times in Mr. Kowars’ class. In your message, you mentioned that this country was and still is the greatest country in human history. I completely agree with this statement.
In 1763, our forefathers made the decision to stand up for what they believed in, to fight for independence. And since that day, the people of this country have never stopped fighting for what was necessary to better our country as a whole. In 1905, employees continued to fight for equality and proper treatment from employers. In 1955, the Civil Rights Era began. When our government failed to change our society for the better, citizens of American made it their own responsibility to make a change.
No matter what struggles our country has faced, an agreement was found that unified our country beyond thought limitations.
From a young age, the Fourth of July has always been one of my favorite holidays. The overwhelming sense of patriotism that flows throughout the country on the Fourth is a feeling I look forward to each year. The Fourth of July is the one day where we lay down our differences and come together to celebrate the long road our country has traveled to get where we are today: united and whole. Because we are able to do such a thing, no matter how dark of a time we are living in, the United States remains the greatest country in the world.
Throughout history, we have been able to overcome unimaginable obstacles that divided our people. Every struggle was fought with passion and strength. Although we are fighting an invisible force, I wholeheartedly believe that by the end of this, our country will come out thriving. Our people, each generation, are instilled with a love and passion for this country that will never fade.
I enjoyed reading your post because it reminded me of the love I have for this country. It reminded me that although I am unable to go to school, to play sports, or even see my friends, that I still have the privilege of being a small part of this country’s history. This situation will not last forever, it is just a small setback that I must endure. Thank you for reminding me to keep my head up and stay positive throughout this time.
Thanks, Miss Abigail. Anyone who has the same first name as the wife of John Adams has to be a winner. I appreciate your words very much. You write very good prose and your knowledge of American history is exceptional. Equally important, you’re a real patriot and your passionate love of your country is obvious. I bet you have a great career waiting for you.
All the best,
Dear Mr. Burke,
Well, first off, let me say thank you for sharing. I and many others love to hear recollections from people who lived through prominent historical events like World War II. I can’t imagine what it was like to listen to the news of thousands of your fellow citizens dying over the radio in real-time. It’s the exact reason why everyone asks “Where were you during 9/11?” or “What was it like hearing about the assassination of JFK?” There are three types of “stresses” in our daily lives, daily hassles, significant life changes, and catastrophes. My generation, Gen Z, has yet to live through a catastrophe, so we find ourselves asking older generations what their experience was like. However, the only way it touches us is by seeing how other people react. From there, we can share the recollections we’ve heard from other people but never our own. For us, the sharing of memories isn’t like The Giver. We can’t truly feel how we would’ve felt in the moment and that is exactly why it’s important to hear recollection like yours because it’s the closest we can get to experience it.
You go on to describe the sense of unity throughout the country as men and women willfully volunteer to join the fight, President Roosevelt giving his famous fireside chats to assure the American people, the lack of complaints, and how you and those around you would donate to the local firehouse. Don’t get me wrong, war and disease are terrible things but sometimes it brings the best out of people. However, there is one major difference between the two. War brings unity in a physical sense, friends and family come together and you become more sympathetic towards those you quarrel with. It’s typical human nature, when we are in danger and don’t know what’s going to happen, we gather together and hold each other. Disease, on the other hand, is unity in a mental sense. The same dilemma is there (being in danger and not knowing the outcome), except we’re told to do the exact opposite of what our human nature demands of us. The only way we unify is through thoughts or memories we have of each other and anticipating to “do it again”. We are talking to the moon in a sense. Once it clears up, we go back to school or the workplace a different person, a person who cares more about others and life. I guarantee you, once I can go back to school, I’m giving everybody a big hug and many will do the same.
I have to add, the timing of this virus is incredibly bizarre. It’s occurring at a time where our country is the most divided it’s been since the Civil War. There is no greater need for unity in the past 150 years than now. You mention how we are the greatest country that’s was, is, and ever will be. I believe that to be true but that shouldn’t stop us from striving to be better and the only way we can be better is if we are unified. The Coronavirus might be terrible but good may very well come out of it. It might help bridge a dividing gap between political opponents and their voters. We are living in a time where we can’t even see each other face to face over a slight difference of opinion. I believe both Republicans and Democrats share some of the same ideas, but both are too consumed with the idea of being right and the other being wrong that they can’t compromise. The only way for the gap to be filled in is some sort of unifying factor and as terrible as Coronavirus is, I’m hoping that it’ll unify us enough to where we can solve the other problems that can be easily fixed right in front of us.
Anyways, thank you again for sharing. It is vital to our culture and our country for stories such as yours to be shared. Without them, government and higher authorities take hold of the commonfolk and shreds culture and civilization and compact it into a 1984-esque society. It’s also important for the younger generation to hear this message as it prepares us for the very real possibility of other catastrophes occurring and how we can individually impact the worlds around us for the better. It allows us to take what was successful for the previous generation and apply it to our own.
Thanks, Adrian, for your nice letter. You make many very good points, and you certainly understand the problems and strengths of our nation. I’m amazed how well informed you and your fellow students are. You write very good prose and you have a journalistic eye in the best possible way. I suspect you are also a student of the sciences as well as the humanities. That’s a pretty combo.
It’s obvious you’re a good man, partner. All the best to you in your career. I’m sure it will be a fine one.
Stay on old that old-time rock and roll,
Dear Mr. Burke,
A post you made on March 25 at 1:29pm touched the hearts of many, including my English teacher, Kacey Kowars. He is a big fan of yours and talks about you, your work, and the friendship you and him have made endlessly. This is a very hard time for our nation as you know. Our school is now online while we are being quarantined and an assignment Mr. Kowars gave to us was to react and write a letter to you regarding “In My Darkest Hour.” Your message moved not only my teacher but all of my classmates. The message could help our nation get through this time. My generation is very different from your generation and many others in the past. You have been through a much harder time and I think sharing your story and how the nation got through it will bring hope and motivation to push through and come out of it stronger than ever.
The spread of COVID-19 is what has many of us scared and worried. Perhaps the media isn’t helping. I think social media is one of the biggest technological upgrades for our time. However, social media platforms can be used in very negative ways and I think that with the virus taking over the nation, the media is tagging along with spreading it by including daily updates of the death rates. It sure does play a major part in causing the worrisome to grow in people. When you were thought to have a case of polio and spent a year in bed, I am sure that social media wasn’t spreading the deaths of this virus. However, you all got through that with following the precautions that were given. China was the first country to have cases of this virus and with them being a communist country they didn’t have the option to not listen to their government and rebel. China went on a country lockdown and came out of it with less cases and less deaths. Whereas, our country is a representative republic allowing us to elect the representatives to create and vote on the laws our country has. Our country is a free country which is why it is the place to go for new opportunities to the immigrants that migrate over. I believe that there could be two possible outcomes for the disease. I think that the citizens of the United States could listen to the government and self-quarantine and prevent the virus from taking over, or we could rebel and allow the virus to cause more deaths than it already has.
Personally, I am very thankful for my relationship with the Lord. It might not be the sure-fire solution to stop this virus, but being able to give grace to Jesus Christ allows a weight to be lifted off of my shoulders. I strongly believe that the protection of the Lord is a way to get through this time. In your post you said, “Keep the faith, and grin and walk through the cannon smoke.” Many people are scared and don’t know how to get through this but your post gives ambition to those certain individuals. We can and will walk out of this alive. I think if the country were to hear your story and others that have gone through similar times in the past it will allow them to see the harder times our country has survived.
I thank you for the post you made about your story. It has allowed me to see that our country is strong and remains “the greatest country in human history.” I have gained the desire to push through this time and share your story. We cannot allow our country to crumble due to a virus when there has been much worse in our past. I wish you the best of health in the future. You are an inspirational man and your work displays the type of person I wish to see in the rest of the world.
Thank you for everything,
Thanks, Miss Blair, for your kind words. You write very good prose yourself. Your statements about courage and perseverance and a faith in the Lord are right on target, I think. You and your classmates seem to be an extraordinary group. Best of everything in your career. I bet it’s going to be a fine one.
Keep the faith and stay on that old-time rock and roll,
Dear Mr. Burke,
I was forwarded your Facebook post from my teacher Mr. Kowars, and it’s message deeply resonated with me and how I look upon our world during this uncertain time. The Corona Virus has quite literally turned our world upside down. These last few weeks have manifested into the most dire period I have witnessed in my life. You mentioned how fear in parents, acts as a contagion to their children. The parents’ fear induces the same fear in their children, even if they don’t know why. While my parents are by no means panicked, their concern for the world at this time has made me understand the gravity of the situation. These last few weeks have felt like a dream. The stock market hit it’s all-time high only a month ago and has now undergone one of the worst drops in history. It’s amazing how fast times can change when under stress of uncertainty. And just today I learned the news that our Easter Sunday church service will not be held in person, I can say with certainty this has become my darkest hour.
This virus has lifted the carpet on America in some respects and has shown some of our tendencies in a panicked state. More and more frequently I see videos on social media showing people hoarding items from the grocery store in a state of foolishness. While I live in Florida and see this type of behavior every time a hurricane develops, I have never witnessed the behavior at this level. I have also started to see my friends’ parents lose their jobs, and I can’t imagine what that is like.
But this virus, just like Pearl Harbor, has shown heroes where we wouldn’t have looked just three months ago. We see low pay workers at grocery stores suddenly turn into essential personnel that the rest of us depend on. And nurses and doctors now work around the clock to help people like no one else can. I have been reminded just how much everyone matters and how anything- no matter how big or small can make a difference.
I have also witnessed an unprecedented shift on our incredibly volatile and polarized political system. Only a few weeks ago all anyone cared about was their own political party and it’s success at the expense of doing the right thing. Now I see a unified political body that is here to help and do what they can to improve the situation for everyone. The president, now helping by using the power he has and working with seemingly no opposition is incredible to see.
Times like these, if we let it, bring out the worst in us. But what makes America so great is that a dire time like this has brought us together and unified a polarized people. As you so thoughtfully put it, “There is no mystery to who people are. They are what they do.” and right now there is no mystery on what America is. We are a body wholeheartedly supporting each other through this era of fear. And I hope this reminds us all of who we are and what we fight for- each other.
Sincerely, Caleb Atchison
You write very well, partner. It’s obvious you understand the situation we find ourselves in today. I think young people such as you will do a much better job my generation has.
Keep the faith and stay on that old-time rock and roll.
Dear Mr. Burke,
I would like to first say thank you for inspiring so many people to become unified through this dark time. Your post on Facebook has become an encouraging message in my life. As Americans, this post demonstrates the necessity of unity, love, and courage in our country during dark times like these. Something that people do not see through this is the growth of the hearts of our citizens. So many people are focused on the negative that they are completely blinded by the positive. Yes, this is a horrible thing that is happening to our world, but it can only make our country stronger. The effect of Pearl Harbor and World War Two on America was awful. So many innocent people died around the world, and there was a global fight with vicious forces like the Axis powers. I was not alive for World War Two, and I was not even alive for the attack on the World Trade Center. I am constantly reminded of them because of their everlasting effect on the American People. These two events are what Americans look back upon as a turning point in their lives. Although I was not alive for September 11, 2001, I watch reruns every year of the Super Bowl halftime show by U2. The chills I get when every person lost in those attacks is projected throughout the stadium while Bono has his arms raised singing “Where the Streets Have No Name” is overwhelming. Bono, the lead singer of U2 once said, “We play Where the Streets Have No Name whenever we need God to walk through the room”. It was evident that God was standing on the stage with Bono’s American Flag jacket. America was in awe. Music was the ultimate healing of the American people.
I have heard so many stories throughout the years about Pearl Harbor and September 11, 2001, and I never really could relate to them. Not because I was not emotionally moved or that I did not care, but because I never lived through something where the American culture shifted; at least not until the Boston Marathon Bombing. I remember sitting in a Starbucks in Charlotte, North Carolina, and seeing live footage of the Boston Marathon. I had multiple relatives at the marathon, which was a huge tradition for New Englanders. My dad was born in Massachusetts and my mom lived in Massachusetts for a large amount of her life. I remember my mom posting her Boston t-shirt on Instagram and flaunting her Red Sox’s hat all day, and I remember the feeling I got when reading the live headline that a bomb exploded at the finish line. The videos were haunting and it was a moment of fear in Americans. It was the first thing I had lived through that immediately made me feel twenty years older then I was. Everything changed after that day: practically everywhere was required to have metal detectors and so many standards of public safety changed. There were so many terrible things that happened that day, but so many things that brought Americans together. I remember watching the rescheduled Red Sox game that was postponed because of the huge manhunt for the bombers, and the players’ speeches moving every single person in Fenway Park. A wave of patriotism, love, and unity came over the crowd when the Red Sox came out of the dugout in their original jerseys that instead of wearing Red Sox across their chests, they wore Boston in huge, red letters. David Ortiz’s moving tribute to the people of Boston was healing and he started the “Boston Strong” movement that people ordered on shirts, hung on banners, and was on every news site available. The sense of patriotism was overflowing; everyone came together during this horrible time. Events similar to this go on and on: the Paris Attacks, the Pulse nightclub shooting, The Marjory Stonemason Douglass shooting. All the terrible things that happened and affected millions of Americans. The other day, I was driving to take my SAT and drove by the Pulse nightclub. It makes complaining about taking the SAT seem so small. After Marjory Stonemason Douglass, trauma kits were put into all of our classrooms. The teaches acted like it was just a safety measure and not a big deal, even though when it was our classes turn to receive our kit, you couldn’t hear a pin drop. Everyone’s focus shifted and the teacher stopped teaching. It really puts into perspective how blessed you are to live another day on this earth and how much we truly take for granted.
The COVID-19 epidemic changing the trajectory of so many peoples’ lives and is going to impact the generations to follow. An event like this shows us that we take everything for granted and showcases the need for more selfless acts of kindness. Elton John organized an at-home concert the other night with so many influential artists and it raised so much awareness and money for the fight against COVID-19. Positive movements are already arising amidst the crisis in our country. The only step we can take is forward. Mr. Burke, you have reminded me of the importance of staying strong for the people around me and the people of our country. You have shown me the importance of selflessness in this time period, and you have reminded me of the beautiful aspects of life that I take for granted on a daily basis. I will not sit in my house and complain about the lifestyle that we all have to practice, but think what can I do to help my community. When the first sports game is played on T.V., I won’t scroll through social media instead of paying attention. When the first concert I attend after this is all over is held, I won’t hold my phone up trying to get the best footage or complain that the person in front of me is too tall. I will not complain about having to go to dinner with my grandparents instead of going to a high school party. I will not take for granted the cool summer nights where the sky is cotton candy pink, all of the windows are down, and my arms are around the people I love while screaming all of our favorite songs. I will not take for granted my place on this earth, or the goodness of our God. I will hug my loved ones a little tighter then usual, because I regret all of the times I didn’t because I thought I always had tomorrow.
Good heavens, Miss Cameron, you’re a walking library of American history. Thanks very much for your nice letter. You’re a born writer. I know one when I see and read one. You’ve got the energy and power in your prose of Thomas Wolfe, the one from North Carolina. Or Joyce Carol Oates. This is a true story. I was at a writer’s convention, and Ms. Oates was sitting with her husband at a table when a friend of mine walked by and noticed that Mr. Oates’ was gripping her hand. My friend asked if anything was wrong. Ms. Oates’ husband replied, “Are you kidding? If Joyce gets her hand free, she’ll start writing a short story on the table cloth.”
Seriously, you’re a very good writer. You have talent and brains and the love of words, and those are the only gifts you need to be not only a writer but a great one.
All the best in your career. I suspect it will be a whammeroo (that’s an expression my old friend Leicester Hemingway used).
Keep the faith and stay on that old-time rock and roll,
PS: Here’s a stylistic trick to learn as a writer. Put some white space in your paragraphs. Empty space is an art form. Let the line shout. You’ve got a marching band, in the best way. Just give your sentences more room to march in, but in your case delete nothing.
Dear James Lee Burke,
As we navigate the daily changes brought on by the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the U.S., one of the significant changes in my life has been school transitioning to remote learning. In our remote class, Mr. Kowars encouraged our class to read your post on the coronavirus, and I am glad he did. The idea that stood out to me the most from reading your post is national and global unity. I think your post was a great inspiration to America’s people, reminding them that we have demonstrated great strength in the past, and we have the strength to get through this time as well by doing our part and helping each other. Although I, an introvert, am not struggling with being self-quarantined as much as others, I feel as though some people currently fail to see the light in the darkness in our current situation. They feel deprived of the life they had before the coronavirus reached the United States, but fail to see that if we all do our part by following the government’s orders, only then will we be able to go back to life as usual.
Something you discussed in your post was the Marshall Plan. You said that America had the power to take over the world and turn it into something evil, but instead we reached out to other countries to help them as an act of generosity. This reminded me of how proud I am to live in this country. This act is an example to us Americans of how we should treat each other, just how Jesus treated others. Jesus has almighty power and still chooses to reach out his loving hands to the lowest of lows. Jesus does this not expecting anything in return, just purely out of the goodness of his heart, and with this, he tells us to love others unconditionally. This is what America did by reaching out to Western Europe, which is what made the Marshall Plan be known as a “good deed of foreign policy”, or an act of friendship.
As our pledge of allegiance states, we are “one nation under God”. In reality, we are one world under God. Despite the differences between all of these countries being affected by the coronavirus, at the moment, we are all facing one common battle. Similarly to how countries began to unite under the Marshall Plan, countries that are suffering from today’s pandemic are also coming together. Health experts across the world are working together in order to minimize the death toll and keep this virus from being as destructive as it is capable of being. For example, Italy gave the United States 500,000 coronavirus testing swabs so that we could distribute them across the country. These acts of unity are what is going to get us through this time.
Thank you, Mr. Burke, for publishing this post as a reminder to keep our heads held high in the midst of fear. I believe that we will only be more grateful for the things this virus has taken from us. Even things as simple as being with those we love, or having the opportunity to go to school or our workplaces. These things will no longer be taken for granted, and that is a part of the beauty that will come when this invisible war comes to its end. I think that your post is an inspiration to many to be strong, just as America’s heroes have. Lastly, thank you for reminding others that this, too, shall pass.
Hello, Miss Tiffany. In truth, I think your essay about my essay is better than my essay. Your observations are wonderful, particularly our need to understand that we are one world under God, not simply one nation. Also your statements about our need for unity and compassion and the teachings that are fundamental to an understanding of Jesus’s mission, which was to be good guys and take care of one another.
Anyway, you’re a champ. I also believe you’re going to have tremendous success in your career.
Keep the faith and stay on that old-time rock and roll,