New Brunswick

Dear Diary: Today I got a message from my Grade 6 self

Austin Hutton’s hands were shaking when he got the package, a portal to the past tucked into a plain manila envelope. It was his diary, written in 1988, when he was a student at Havelock Elementary School.

Retired teacher tracks down dozens of students across Canada to return their childhood diaries

Austin Hutton was thrilled when his long-forgotten Grade 6 diary arrived in the mail. (Submitted by Austin Hutton)

Austin Hutton's hands were shaking a little when he got the package, a portal to the past tucked into a plain manila envelope. 

It was his diary, written in 1988, when he was a Grade 6 student at Havelock Elementary School.

"I was excited, and pretty emotional, to be honest," Hutton said. "I had no idea what I'd written, what mattered to me back then. It was like getting a window on your childhood." 

The diary was one of dozens, forgotten by the students but held onto by their teacher for decades, that are now making their way across the country.

Their secrets are sweet, simple, unscandalous. 

But the effort to reunite them with their now-grownup authors has left more than a few people feeling "goose bumpy" with appreciation.

Stored in Saint John, forgotten for decades 

Back in the 1980s, Havelock Elementary School teacher Hugh Brittain liked to assign his Grade 6 students creative writing projects.

A diary was one of the class favourites. Predictions of what their adult life would look like were another. 

Some of the students collected their writing projects at graduation and took them home.

Many did not.

Brittain kept all of the left-behind diaries — "I never read them. I told the students they were private, and they were," —  storing them at his west side home. 

Every now and then, he'd come across them and think, "I suppose I should toss those out," he said.

"But I just couldn't do it."

Earlier this year, Brittain decided he'd try to reunite the paper treasures with their writers.

But first, he'd have to find them.

Retired teacher Hugh Brittain kept his students' forgotten diaries in his garage for decades. 'I just couldn't bring myself to throw them out.' (Submitted by Hugh Brittain)

A social media seek-and-reunite mission

Brittain, 79, concedes he's not really a social media whiz.

He posted a note on a Beaconsfield School Days Facebook page.

"I have a number of diaries written by grade six students of Havelock School. … They were written 33-43 years ago and I don't have the heart to dispose of them. I am sure they would get a kick out of what their thoughts were as a twelve-year-old. Perhaps someone could help me contact the following students."

The post got a few delighted responses, but there were many students whose trail had gone cold.

That's when super-sleuth Cher Raynes stepped in.

Now living in Saskatchewan, Raynes grew up in Saint John and had a friend who'd attended Havelock.

She started with her, and then she just kept going.

She reached out to former students, friends of former students, relatives of friends, tracked down email addresses, and soon a flurry of interchanges was threading across the country, from Saint John to Moose Jaw to Edmonton and beyond.

"Mr. Brittain is trying to track down these students … put the word out."

"I think his sister is still in Saint John, you could try her at this address."

"I know her married name, will reach out."

"It's like putting a puzzle together," Raynes said in an interview. "I enjoy it, and I've reconnected with a few chums from the past as well."

Slowly but surely, almost every one of the diary writers was tracked down, and Brittain mailed each of the diaries out, paying the postage himself.

"I don't mind, it wasn't much," he said. "I was just happy they'd all have them back."

Austin Hutton enjoyed looking over his diary with his son, AJ, who is the same age now that Hutton was when he wrote the diary. (Submitted by Austin Hutton)

The diaries begin finding their way home

Across the country, former Havelock students waited eagerly for their passage to the past to arrive.

So many years had gone by, and even the school itself no longer exists, having been closed in 2016 and demolished. The diaries were a long-forgotten link to all of that.

Austin Hutton found himself transported back to those years even before his diary arrived.

Now living in Fort St. John, B.C., Hutton has four children, including a son who is the same age now that Hutton was when he wrote the diary.

"I was so curious to see if I was anything like he is now at this age," he said.  

Hutton's diary arrived about a week ago, with a stern warning on the cover.

"MY DIARY.
Top Secret.
KEEP OUT!"

Hutton's wife got a chuckle out of that. 

"She said that is very much me," he said in an interview.

The diary shed a lot of light on what mattered to 11-year-old Austin: chiefly, mowing lawns to earn cash, saving all his earnings to buy a new bike, and winning the attention of "the prettiest girl in my class."

He'd managed to get her phone number that day — " I actually wrote it down in my diary," Hutton said with a laugh — although he never did get the girl. 

"She dated other guys," he said.

Hutton said getting the diary back has been a deeply moving experience, and while the memories of his past crushes have long since faded, his respect for his Grade 6 teacher never will.

"I get goose bumpy thinking how he held onto them all these years, looked us up across the country and sent them out. The joy and the love that he put into this … the kindness. It's just unbelievable."

Ted Dakin was amused to find his Grade 6 predictions of what his grownup life would be like entailed a wife with 'sparkling blue eyes' and a wedding at which he insisted his mother-in-law be seated in the back row of the church. (Submitted by Ted Dakin)
 

A wedding planner is born

A few months ago, an old friend from Saint John flagged Ted Dakin on Facebook.

"Hey, Hugh Brittain is trying to get ahold of you, he has something for you. That diary you did in Grade 6."

Dakin was astonished.

"I had no recollection of what I would have written back then, but I was so curious to find out," he said.

He sent Brittain his address in Edmonton and sat back, reminiscing about the old days on the west side.

"It was a simpler life," he said. "Your biggest concerns were getting to school on time, going to baseball practice, lots of chaos among the kids. And I remember Mr. Brittain. He was our neighbour and a great teacher."

Within a few weeks, his parcel arrived.

"In my case, it wasn't a diary," Dakin said.

It was a letter to his grownup self, and the assignment was 'Tell me what you see in your future.' "

Apparently, Dakin said, what he saw was wedding cake.

"I guess because I lived with two women, my mom and my sister Pauline, I decided to write about getting married. In some detail."

Young Ted described his bride-to-be as "a dirty blond with sparkling blue eyes."

"It was actually a girl in my class, but I won't name names," said Dakin, who worked in a flower shop.

They would get married on April 11, 1992, at Centenary Queen Square United Church in front of 201 invited guests.

"And," young Ted took pains to note, "my mother-in-law would sit in the back row."

They'd honeymoon in Hawaii, move into a two-bedroom cabin in the California woods and, if his choice of vehicles was any clue, begin preparing for a family.

"I'd buy a GMC van and jazz it up," he wrote.

So how prophetic did his predictions turn out to be?

"Well there's been no GMC van," Dakin said with a chuckle.

But he did marry a blond, he did plan his own wedding, and they did move to a two-bedroom cabin in the woods, built by Dakin himself.

"I don't know what any of that means, but I do know this, when I get back to Saint John for a visit, I'm definitely going to knock on Hugh Brittain's door," Dakin said. "I'm blown away that he would keep these all these years."

Susan Fearnhead Knolla got her diary from Brittain when she finished high school and has held onto it. 'Great memories,' she says. (Submitted by Susan Fearnhead Knolla)

Back when mail was delivered to your door — by your teacher

Susan Fearnhead Knolla's experience was a little different. 

She was reunited with her diary when she graduated from Saint John High School.

"Mr. Brittain came around to give the Grade 6 diaries to some students who were still in the neighbourhood," she said.

"It was pretty cool to get it back after six years, and he walked around the neighborhood personally to deliver them."

Fearnhead Knolla said she left town, travelled a lot, moved overseas, then eventually "came home" to west Saint John.

And after all this time, she said, she still has her diary.

"I'll keep it forever. Great memories."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marie Sutherland is a web writer with CBC New Brunswick based in Saint John. You can reach her at marie.sutherland@cbc.ca.

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