Nancy Rubin mailed approximately 15,000 letters that students wrote to their future selves during her four decade teaching career.
Nancy Rubin mailed approximately 15,000 letters that students wrote to their future selves during her four decade teaching career.

‘Hi I’m Nancy Rubin’: new doc pays tribute to Jewish Berkeley High teacher

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As a student at Berkeley High School in the late 1980s, Jennifer Steinman Sternin took a class called Social Living that was a mix of sex ed, home ec and group therapy. For one assignment, Steinman Sternin and the other students in the class wrote letters to themselves that the teacher then mailed to them at a designated time in the future — from two to 20 years, and sometimes even longer.

Jennifer Steinman Sternin
Jennifer Steinman Sternin

Steinman Sternin’s letter, which she opted to receive on her 21st birthday, was one of approximately 15,000 that the teacher, Nancy Rubin, mailed during her career. Three decades later, Steinman Sternin has made a documentary honoring her favorite teacher and that memorable project.

“Hi I’m Nancy Rubin” is part of a series about inspirational people that is streaming on HBO Max and Discovery+. The 44-minute documentary, part of which was shot at Berkeley High last April, includes interviews with several of Rubin’s former students talking about her impact on them.

“Originally it was just going to be a short film for Nancy and her family and friends,” Steinman Sternin, 50, told J. “Then I was meeting with Magnolia Network about some other things and I brought up the project and they got super excited about it. They wanted to do something after the pandemic to say thank you to teachers and honor the great teachers everywhere.”

Steinman Sternin, who lives in Santa Rosa and belongs to Congregation Shomrei Torah, reconnected with Rubin, 76, about four years ago. On the recommendation of another Jewish former student of Rubin’s, actor Aaron Davidman, Rubin reached out to Steinman Sternin on Facebook to discuss turning her story into a film.

“There was something really special about the way she taught,” recalled Steinman Sternin, who directed the 2013 documentary “Desert Runners” about ultramarathoners. “I’ve talked to so many Berkeley High graduates, and everybody says the same thing, which is: She just listened and cared, and how revolutionary that was for us as teenagers to be listened to in that way.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Rubin attended Wilshire Boulevard Temple with her family. She taught visually impaired students at Berkeley High for five years before taking over several sections of Social Living in 1977. “I had no training to teach secondary school, so it was quite a change,” she said in a recent Zoom interview. “I ended up loving it, but it was a scary first year.”

The nine-week class covered “everything from birth to death,” she said. Rubin moderated frank conversations about sex, teen pregnancy, drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, gangs, mental illness and grief.

As part of the class, students wrote about their home lives in a journal. Rubin said she got the idea for the letter-writing project from a teacher of hers at Los Angeles High School. Some students decided to create time capsules — adding letters written by their parents and friends, photographs, concert tickets and cassette tapes to their envelopes.

Nancy Rubin teaching in 1992
Nancy Rubin teaching in 1992

“I don’t think I really thought about it except as something kind of fun and to reflect back on their teenage years,” said Rubin, who retired in 2002 and lives in the East Bay. “The kids almost took more out of it than I ever expected.”

As depicted in the film, Rubin stored the envelopes in shoe and pizza boxes until their send-by dates. Many chose to receive the letters in the year 2000. One student received his 37 years later, though that was by accident; the letter had gotten lost in the mail and eventually returned to Rubin, who then misplaced it for a time before mailing it again.

What happened if a student moved in the intervening years? Rubin said she used Facebook to try to contact them, and a former student also helped her track others down.

The film documents Rubin sending off the final dated letters last year, bringing her 45-year project to an end — almost. She has three more letters that say “send as late as possible” that she is hanging onto until the time feels right.

Since “Hi I’m Nancy Rubin” came out in November, Rubin said she has heard from dozens of former students. “I love that most people have been moved to tears, including quite a few men,” she said. “And I love that the film kind of gives insight into what teachers are dealing with. It’s such an incredibly challenging profession.”

Rubin, who also taught at Archie Williams High School (formerly Sir Francis Drake High School) in San Anselmo, never had children of her own. “But she raised thousands and thousands of teenagers” in her classes, Steinman Sternin said. “It’s fascinating to me how many other students she’s still in contact with. She’s interested in who they are as adults.”

She added, “Somebody said to me when I was interviewing them about this letter project, that the letter kind of symbolizes the fact that she believed in our future and knew that our future existed before we actually knew that ourselves.”

As for her own letter, Steinman Sternin said she chose to receive it on her 21st birthday because when she was 15 that felt far off. “I had no idea that some people put ‘when I’m 50’ on the envelope,” she said. “I do wish I had waited longer.”

“Hi I’m Nancy Rubin” is streaming now on HBO Max and Discovery+.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.