I remember the morning I showed up in English class and found our teacher crying. Ms. Tyman was my favorite teacher by far—I took an independent study writing class with her and we did nothing that semester but huddle around a table in the library and talk fiction. She showed me her poems, and she read my awful high-school writing as if it deserved serious consideration. She was unsparing in her criticism, but also in her praise. So finding her sitting at her desk sobbing sent the class into a stunned silence.
"Rob Kornwise died," she said. "In a car accident."
It took me a minute to understand what she was even saying. Rob sat next to me, and Rob and I weren't really friends, but we shared one thing in common: we both wrote. I'd read his stuff, and I was impressed. In another life, Rob and I might have been friends. We should have been friends.
As best I can remember, the accident happened during a concert. Rob was in a car full of kids, waiting in a line. Another car tried to cut into the line and rear-ended Rob's car. He was tall, so his head stuck up above the seat-rest. His neck broke and he died instantly.
When a high school student dies like that, the whole school stops. Life seems to stop and mortality makes an unwelcome appearance in the grim halls. For a while at least, all the normal activities are suspended and there is a palpable, dull sheen over everything. I remember seeing girls crying in the hallway.
I didn't go to the funeral. I felt like I hadn't really earned it, because Rob and I weren't very close after all. I was afraid I had no right to show up. But I wrote his parents a letter. "You don't know me," I wrote. "You've probably never heard my name, and I'm just one of the kids who drifted in and out of Rob's life. But I wanted to say that Rob meant something to me. He was a writer. I'm a writer. He was so good, and I'm so sorry for your loss. I would have loved to see what Rob could have written."
Of course, I knew from class what Rob was writing. He was working on a fantasy novel. It was patterned after his favorite author, Piers Anthony, and Rob was serious about publication. When he died, his book was halfway done. In one of those remarkable stories, his friends sent the manuscript to Anthony with a short note about what happened and how Rob loved Anthony's books. Piers Anthony read it. And liked it. And finished it based on Rob's notes. You can order the book on Amazon. It's called Through the Ice, and Rob Kornwise is given co-author credit with Anthony.
I've thought about Rob a lot over the years, with a mixture of sadness, inspiration and regret. I never mailed the letter I wrote to his parents. No one ever knew how much Rob's death shook me—because I didn't tell anybody, and because I didn't really understand it myself. I spent most of those years skipping school and flunking tests, frequently face down, obsessed with my girlfriend, and dreaming of running away. But Rob wasn't running away—he was running toward. Rob had already identified what he wanted in a way that I hadn't and couldn't at that age. He had already engaged in a process that I didn't even know existed.
Ms. Tyman pulled me aside after Rob's death. She was perhaps the only other person who knew that Rob and I had formed this tenuous, classroom connection as writers. She had seen it, and she had nurtured it. She made us writing partners and encouraged us to share our work. I think now that Ms. Tyman hoped Rob had something to teach me—and I can only hope that she also thought I had something to teach Rob. Ms. Tyman had almost made a career out of trying to reach me.
"Are you OK?" she said.
I nodded because there was no way I could tell the truth.