How late is too late when responding to a personal letter? A year? Five years? Longer?

Try never.

“I would like to think that I responded to your letter at the time, but I suspect I did not,” Lynn Bonsey of Bucksport wrote a week ago to Rep. Genevieve McDonald, D-Stonington. “And I am very sorry for that.”

Bonsey is a schoolteacher, has been for 43 years. She’s spent the last 27 of those years teaching at the tiny Surry Elementary School in Hancock County.

McDonald, now in her second term as a Maine legislator, attended that school for a short time in 1996. Her life was anything but tranquil in those days and, as she navigated her way through seventh grade, “Ms. Bonsey” became an anchor in the storm.

The storm has long subsided. But the two remain tethered to this day.

“With my unstable home life, I ended up in foster care,” McDonald, now 38, said in an interview. “I had moved and gone to a different school every year, so I didn’t have a lot of friends or community support.”

But she had this teacher with a keen eye for kids who are struggling – and the girl who went by “Jen” back then gave off those signals.

While the rest of the middle-school universe swirled around them, they’d talk quietly together during recess. When Jen sat down for a lonely lunch, it was Ms. Bonsey who invariably took the seat next to her.

“I was really just looking for somebody to be kind and pay attention to me,” McDonald said. “And she was wonderful. She listened to my adolescent woes – some were trivial, some were probably pretty heavy.”

Then, shortly before the end of that school year, it abruptly ended. The state took custody of Jen, who had been living tenuously at the time with her mother, and suddenly she found herself at KidsPeace, a residential facility in Ellsworth.

Alone again, Jen got out her pen and paper.

“Dear Ms. Bonsey,” she wrote. “Hi! How’s it going. I’d rather be back home but it’s not unbearable. I’m at KidsPeace New England, but I’m assuming you know that. How’s class? Say hi to everyone for me please.”

She went on to say that she’d filled four notebooks in three weeks with a mix of journaling and fiction. That she was doing so well in the school there that she might skip a year and start ninth grade that September. That she might leave the place before then “if my Mom agrees to take me. … I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.” She asked how Ms. Bonsey’s young children were doing.

“I miss talking to you,” she wrote. “You were a great teacher and I hope even if I don’t come back to Surry we can keep in touch.”

At the end, just after the “Love, Jen,” she wrote, “Write Back?”

Neither McDonald nor Bonsey can recall what contact, if any, they had immediately after that. But life went on.

McDonald went from KidsPeace to a foster home in East Machias, then back with her mother, then to another foster placement in Blue Hill. Finally, at age 16, she successfully petitioned the state for emancipation and embarked on a life of her own.

She earned her GED. She worked in restaurants. She took seasonal jobs from the Carrabassett Valley to Arizona to California to Key West. She raced sailboats for a time in the Caribbean.

Returning to Maine, she worked on a lobster boat and eventually earned her captain’s license and bought her own fishing boat out of Stonington. Then in 2012, while recuperating from a broken arm, she enrolled in online classes with the University of Maine System, graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in university studies and a minor in Maine studies.

By now married with two daughters, McDonald ran for the Legislature in 2018 and won with two-thirds of the vote. In her re-election last fall, she was unopposed.

Through it all, Ms. Bonsey kept teaching at Surry Elementary – the same school where her grandmother once worked when Bonsey was a young girl growing up in Falmouth.

She watched with admiration from not-so-afar as her former  pupil, once so adrift, grew to become a world traveler, a college graduate, a wife and mother, a lobster boat captain and now, a community leader.

“She amazes me,” Bonsey said in a separate conversation. “She’s so brave and smart, and I’m just so impressed with her.”

Which brings us back to that letter. An admitted pack rat, Bonsey recently was going through some of the many letters she’s received from her students over the years and came across the one dated June 9, 1996.  She’d bumped into McDonald from time to time since then – at some point they even became friends on Facebook – but something about that “Write Back?” postscript tugged hard on her conscience.

And so, at long last, she wrote back.

“As I have told you before, I am so proud of the woman you’ve become,” Bonsey wrote. “You have long given me hope for the many students I’ve had who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves in difficult circumstances.”

She went on to praise McDonald’s “resilience, determination and hard work.” She confessed that “as a young working mother myself, I was often overwhelmed and despite my best intentions didn’t always follow through on things.” Still, she said, the possibility that she may not have written back “is unacceptable to me.”

It’s worth noting that in my telephone chats with each of them, both McDonald and Bonsey pleaded that I focus this column not on them but on the other.

That would be impossible. As much as this is about the teacher who took a struggling kid under her wing, it’s also about a girl, thrust into adulthood ahead of her time, who now stands as a beacon of hope to kids who fear their story is over before it starts.

And as much as it’s about Bonsey’s need to respond to Jen’s letter even after all these years, it’s also about McDonald’s grace in proclaiming on Facebook last week that she’s “overwhelmed by the dedication of a teacher who saved this letter for 25 years, and then wrote back to tell me she is proud of me.”

We can’t get enough teachers like that. Nor can we point to many role models more inspiring that than the young girl who, whatever life might throw at her, refused to give up.

As she spoke to me on Thursday, McDonald was driving from Stonington to the State House in Augusta, where the Legislature was hard at work wrapping up its session. But as House chair of the Government Oversight Committee, she noted, her work will continue on through the summer.

“We’re about to start investigating child welfare,” she said. “So it comes full circle.”


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