Reed Thulander died in an auto accident (not his fault) in the early hours of New Year’s Day. He was 19.
I was Reed’s English teacher for six years. When I first met him in 2013, the seventh-grader and I didn’t get off to a good start. I was a 51-year-old overeducated, under-experienced slow learner trying (and mostly failing) to figure out the creatures with whom I was sentenced to spend 9 hours a day.
One particularly energetic day of Reed’s, he and I found ourselves in the principal’s office with Reed’s dad, Jon. We discussed the situation and Reed’s part in it, and he began to cry. I felt horrible and kept thinking, “He’s so little.”
Later that evening, reflecting on that meeting, I realized Reed’s tears were not tears of apology. They were tears of frustration. He was that square peg. He was not being allowed to be who he was.
I decided to make Reed my classroom co-pilot, a position I’d never heard of but thought I’d invent as a way for both of us to be “who we were” and fly the plane in the same direction. He sat in a chair right next to me at my table in the front of the room. He got “special” tasks to help me with stuff: handing out papers and supplies, etc. When I felt Reed about to release some of his unbridleable energy I could subtly put my arm around him and he either thought better of it or modified his action or outburst to something he thought I wouldn’t mind. Over time, each of us got better at figuring out how to make this work, and it saved our marriage. We became, without realizing it yet, friends. Even a blind squirrel (me) gets a nut once in a while.
Reed was the first to tell you he didn’t like school, and he never apologized for it. I respected him for that. I also respected him for some very school-like qualities in him. Reed, like his older brother Wyatt, was a poet. He had a natural gift for metaphor and colorful phrases, and for what the great English poet John Keats would describe as “truth and beauty.” He even invented words when the language failed him. I remember one day Mrs. Mink coming to my classroom excited to show me something Reed had written on a scholarship application or something. I wish I could remember the word, but it was a brilliant combination of several words that worked perfectly in what he was trying to say.
Despite his protests about school, he recognized its limited value in the last paper he wrote for me, a biography of himself as a writer. Here’s the dedication paragraph:
“I would like to dedicate this paper to my only English teacher I have ever had and He has done a great job with what he has taught my peers and I over the past six years. He is also the guy I didn’t really get along with too well till I became “Co-Pilot” in his class. Everything I know about writing has come from what this guy has brought to his classroom. He has showed that he cares about our future as writers so much to a point where we piss him off on certain occasions. There is nothing wrong with that because kids my age need a little ass chewing every once in a while to keep us on a forward progressing track.”
On the second page of his 10-page essay, which is absolutely brilliant, he described his writing in 8th grade:
“Looking back on Reed’s eighth grade year, if there was a possible way of connecting fishing to a piece of writing even if it didn’t make sense there was still fishing involved.”
When his class wrote a book that year, an oral history on local residents, Reed used a beautiful fishing metaphor to describe how he wraps up his his tried and true interview process:
“In the middle of the interview, I normally ask the interviewee a question that almost makes them answer in a long speech. I do this because I want to get to know them better and see if they are a talkative person…. At the end of the interview, I say thanks and tell him what was interesting about the interview. Then we take a picture and release him back into his own life.” Catch-and-release. He was primed to become the avid fly fisherman he was.
Reed also reveled in the richness of irony in life. “Reed” made it very clear to me early on and afterward that he did not like to “read.” In his six years in my classes, he was to have completed 48 book report assignments. While I recall him turning in most or all of those (or he wouldn’t have passed my classes), I’m pretty sure he actually read very few — if any — of those books. Reed and I had what might be called an understanding on this one. Square pegs need a home, too.
The other notable irony for me is that Reed the Reading Hater bugged the crap out of me to have his class read, in his junior year, Norman Maclean’s (the author of A River Runs Through It) book about the Mann Gulch Fire in Montana that killed 13 smoke jumpers in 1949. Young Men and Fire is the only class set of books out of the thousands of books in my former classroom at Cambridge High School that sits on the shelves because a student requested it. A major regret of mine is that I never succeeded at getting Reed to come fish with us there on the Missouri River, where we spend our summers, and take him for a hike up nearby Mann Gulch. He would have loved it, along with catching some lunkers on the beautiful hand-made fly rod he made for his Senior Project.
I’ll end by describing my most cherished possession from my short teaching career. When Reed was a sophomore, the year we read A River Runs Through It, we did an activity just before Thanksgiving called the “Compliments Project.” Every student sat in front of a blank poster with his or her name on it while the rest of the class wrote something nice about that person on the poster. When they were done, the person turns around and reads what his or her classmates wrote. I took their photos while they read comments, and then put them on their posters. Almost everyone smiled as wide as I’d ever seen. When we were done, students said I had to let them do one for me. I didn’t want to, mainly because I wasn’t sure what some of the students would write. But I relented. When I turned around to read it, I was relieved and moved. At the very top (which puzzled me because Reed was fairly short; he must have climbed on a chair), in orange marker and his unmistakable scrawl, he’d written the most precious thing a student has said to me: “You are a great teacher but a better friend and good fly fisherman.”
Reed had his priorities right. I miss my friend.