April 8, 2014 at 2:39 PM ET
For nearly 40 years, Bruce Farrer has been part teacher and part detective, tracking down thousands of his former students to give them a blast from their pasts.
From 1977 until 2002, Farrer, who is now retired, had his 14-year-old English students write 10-page letters to their future selves.
The 72-year-old from Saskatchewan, Canada then hung on to the letters, so that students wouldn't lose them or succumb to temptation and open them before 20 years had passed, and mailed them back after two decades.
"This is an assignment that they are anxious to get back,'' Farrer told TODAY.com. "It's an assignment that makes them think at 14, what do I want to do and am I on the right path? I think the main thing is just the enjoyment of finding something old. Most of them have remembered writing the assignment, although a number of them told me they didn't remember the details they put in."
He first tried the assignment in 1961 while teaching at a one-room rural school for children grades one through eight. In 1977, he began assigning it every year while teaching at a high school in another rural area.
"I've always had a sense of history,'' he said. "I kept a diary since I was 11 or 12, and I found that fascinating to me when I became a teacher to see how I thought at that time. I also thought that it would be valuable for people raising children when they get the letters to remember what it's like to be 14 years old. One student said the topics she wrote about as a teenager are the same ones her own 14-year-old daughter talks about when she gets home from school."
Farrer does his best to find every student in order to make sure they get their letter, using Facebook and other means to track them down.
And many former students have come to eagerly expect their letters once they hit the 20-year mark. Former student Kate Marchildon has two older sisters who received theirs in recent years and hers will be coming shortly.
"I remember roughly what was going on in that point, but not specifically what I wrote, so I'm pretty curious,'' she told TODAY.com. "I think it seems like it might be intimidating, but when you sat down to write it, it's kind of neat to think about what your future might be. I'm just impressed that he was still tracking us all down."
At the time the students wrote the letters, Farrer asked each of them for permission to read them (to make sure they had completed the assignment), and says about half allowed it while the other half said it was too personal.
He can still remember a student named John Cheers in the early 1980s who wrote only one page and left the other nine blank. When Farrer discovered the blank pages and talked to Cheers about it, he came back the next day with the rest of his letter completed. Unfortunately, Farrer has not yet been able to track him down to mail him his letter.
Farrer's last year teaching full time was the 2001-02 school year, but he still substitutes at various schools near his home. He said his last letters are due to be mailed in 2026, as he carried out the assignment for a few years after his retirement while substitute teaching.
"A lot of times my students' first reaction was, 'What if you're dead in 20 years?''' Farrer said. "Hopefully my wife would look after them."
Farrer has also discovered several students who died in the 20-year span before he mailed the letter.
"Sometimes I've contacted parents and said I had the letter, and it becomes a little part of that person that they've lost that they're able to keep,'' Farrer said. "Recently I was very disappointed after finding out a student died last year because I thought, if I had only sent that letter a year earlier."
Farrer usually works on the letter project in March and part of April. He says he still has nearly 700 letters that will be need to be sent in the next 12 years.
"I've become a detective more than a teacher, and it gives me a sense of satisfaction when I find them,'' he said.
Postal rates have also dramatically increased in Canada, so it costs 80 cents for the lowest freight to mail each letter. He said his former high school pays for the postage, although that could change in the future. He sends roughly 60 per year from classes that usually averaged about 70 students.
"I thought it would be something I could do in my leisurely retirement, but I'm still subbing 80 percent of the time,'' he joked.
Farrer has received a steady stream of Facebook friend requests from former students looking to reconnect and others who have received their letters.
Others have shared publicly what they found in their messages from the past. "I think it's been neat to see other people posting on Facebook what they thought they wrote to what actually happened,'' Marchildon said.