Nancy Rubin teaches a class at Berkeley High in 1992. Courtesy: Nancy Rubin

In 1979, Berkeley High teacher Nancy Rubin began assigning students to write letters to their future selves. She gave the same assignment the next year, and the next — every year until she left in 1996. 

The letters stayed with her for decades. Storing them in shoeboxes and, when she ran out of room, pizza boxes, Rubin religiously mailed the letters on the “send by” dates scrawled on the envelopes. As the number of letters dwindled, she started keeping them in her emergency earthquake go-bag, just in case.

Continuing to drop the letters in mailboxes in her retirement, she’s sent a total of about 15,000 letters. Only a handful — inscribed “send as late as possible” — now remain. 

Berkeley High teacher’s time capsule letter-mailing project has continued for more than four decades. Credit: Austin Meyer

Rubin’s project is chronicled in a new documentary, “Hi, I’m Nancy Rubin,” streaming on HBOMax and elsewhere. The documentary follows three Berkeley High graduates to Berkeley, Los Angeles and Bowling Green, Kentucky, as they read their letters, gush about Rubin and reflect on the impact their former teacher and the class she taught had on their lives.

“Here I was sending out these individual letters, and I felt like the film was a love letter to me,” Rubin said.

Hi, I’m Nancy Rubin is available online through HBOMax, Discovery+ and Magnolia

In the film, student after student remembers Rubin as their favorite teacher, the one who they could turn to in a moment of crisis, the one they felt safe with. After receiving the letters, many students reconnected with Rubin and the film prompted another outpouring of love for her.

The film was directed and produced by Jennifer Steinman, one of Rubin’s students in 1988. As a filmmaker, Steinman likes to chronicle the lives of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” and the documentary is part of a series with Magnolia doing just that. Steinman’s high school teacher fit the bill perfectly. 

The film celebrates Rubin’s legacy as “a master class in community connection,” Steinman said. “She deserves to be a movie star, and I’m glad she is now.”

Nancy Rubin’s class was a place where students ‘could really share’

Rubin holds a batch of letters to be mailed on Jan. 1, 2000. Courtesy: Nancy Rubin

Rubin began teaching at Berkeley high in 1969 and started teaching a class called “Social Living” a few years later. The nine-week class educated students on tough topics like suicide, alcohol and drug abuse and became a place for thinking about “yourself, your place in the world, your relationship with others,” according to Madison Sewell, a former student featured in the documentary. 

There was no curriculum, so Rubin wrote her own. Classes featured student discussions and guest speakers, including teenagers recovering from drug addiction, people who had been incarcerated and those living with HIV. Steinman joked that the documentary, produced for Magnolia, a family-friendly platform, was the “G-rated” version of Rubin’s class.

The time capsule letter project grew out of a journal entry assignment to write a letter to your parents, which was designed to be kept private between Rubin and the students. It was in those letters that Rubin often learned about her students’ most profound personal struggles, whether it was mental illness or domestic violence. Decades later, details stick with her, like the student who, after the personal computer came out, wrote, “My dad loves his computer more than he loves me.” 

The letter-writing assignments were reflective of the approach Rubin took to the class. “It was just a place that they could really share,” she said. Never judgmental or didactic, Rubin prodded her students to be vulnerable with themselves and with each other. 

“She just was able to create this environment where you’re sitting in class and you’re not afraid,” said Roberto Santiago, who graduated from Berkeley High in 1992 and is another of Rubin’s students who reads his letter to himself in the documentary. 

Santiago described Rubin’s class as a safe space before the term had taken off. He remembers the comments she left in his journal, the way she didn’t force students to talk in class but helped them feel invited to, the no-frills way she talked about things like female reproductive organs. “It was just like, ‘Look, we’re talking about this, and it’s not going to be weird,’” Santiago said.

As Santiago reminisces, his middle child butts in. “Can I say something?” Lou, 12, asks. “I see that in you as a parent.” Then, wondering out loud: “Maybe that’s where he got it from.” 

Santiago, who remembers himself as an angry, suspicious teenager, credits Rubin, among other role models, with laying a foundation for him to mature into a more compassionate adult.

But reading the letter he wrote to himself surprised him, upending narratives that he had internalized about his teenage years: “I read this letter to myself and it was so kind, I was so gentle to future me,” Santiago said. “I don’t remember that at all.”

The documentary follows Santiago’s family, including his experience parenting two transgender kids with his wife, Tenysa. 

“I have the approach to my life that I have because I was able to spend those weeks with Nancy,” Santiago says in the film. 

Lying upside down on the couch, Lou pipes in again: “I’m extremely proud to be me.”

You, too, can write a letter to yourself

Nancy Rubin in her classroom in 1991. Credit: Billy Hustace

Teachers like Rubin are rare, and the kind of class she taught at Berkeley High remains uncommon. Her teaching has had ripple effects, influencing those former students who became teachers and professors themselves. Many modeled their approach to education on Rubin’s or replicated her time capsule project.

And Rubin’s contributions haven’t been confined to the classroom. In 1994, she published Ask Me If I Care: Voices from an American High School, a book compiling her students’ journal entries into a book about teenagers’ experiences. 

After her retirement in 2002, Rubin turned to photography, especially portraits, showing her collections in local exhibits and contributing photographs to Berkeleyside. She started “Humans of Berkeley and the Bay Area,” a spin-off of the New York Facebook page that posts eclectic photographs and brief interviews with people on the streets of New York City. 

For her, photography felt like a natural continuation of her career in teaching, “since I have always loved observing people and listening to their stories,” Rubin says in the film. Her latest exhibition about aging and exercise is on view at the North Berkeley Senior Center. 

At the end of the documentary, Rubin’s final act is to offer her time capsule assignment up to viewers.

“It’s never too late to write a letter to your future self,” Rubin says, dictating her old assignment one more time: “Write a letter to yourself. Say anything you want. You might want to write about your feelings regarding your family, self-image, friends, dreams, fantasies, fears, goals, predictions, etc. Think of it in terms of a TIME CAPSULE of your life right now.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the year that Nancy Rubin began teaching at Berkeley High. The year was 1969.

A scene for the documentary is filmed at Berkeley High. Credit: Jennifer Steinman

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...