Who was Caleb Brien?

Who was Caleb Brien?

Caleb Brien died on Monday, May 13, 2019. 

He is the student I’ve been telling you about.

Caleb was the sandy-haired, blue eyed boy who sat quietly in the first seat, second row of my second period Literature class. 

He often carried to class a tattered copy of some Russian novel though I did not teach, or have ever taught, Russian literature.

His writing was complicated. Marked with moments of complex thoughts, mature vocabulary and syntax yet speckled with grammatical errors.

He ran track, lived for a few years in Illinois, and had a speech impediment.

He was 18.

And that is all I really know about Caleb Brien.

Yet now that he’s dead I want to know more.

I want to know who Caleb was.

This week I sought some of Caleb’s closest friends (Ethan, Peter, Justin) and his track coach (Mr. Anthony Dentino) and asked them the question I am struggling to answer:

Who was Caleb Brien?

Ethan: Caleb was a jokester. He loved to mess and joke with people. Not in a condescending or mean way. But in an odd way– to simply get a reaction. 

Peter: He was the most philosophical kid I ever met.

Justin: He was an acquired taste. But when you got to know Caleb he was really enjoyable.

Ethan: Caleb once claimed he was a passionate banjo player–and when no one believed him– he learned to play the banjo.

Mr. Dentino: Caleb always said he didn’t know who he was. But I’m not so sure. I think Caleb knew exactly who he was. 

Peter: I once asked Caleb what was the purpose of life, he smiled and said, “You don’t want to know.”

Justin: We understood each other.

Ethan: He once fooled a teacher into thinking his name was pronounced “Khalib”. She called him “Khalib” for months. It was the funniest thing ever.

Mr. Dentino: Caleb enjoyed talking to adults. He appreciated insightful conversations.

Peter: Caleb never wanted to talk about mental health.

Ethan: I once slept over Caleb’s house and woke up to him  wearing a robe, drinking coffee, and listening to classical music.

Justin: We often talked politics. He liked politics.

Mr. Dentino: Caleb moved around a lot– Japan, Illinois, New Jersey– and he just wanted to connect with people. I think his inability to truly connect with people caused deep pain in him.

Ethan: For some reason he loved to quote the movie, “12 Angry Men”.  

Peter: He wanted to be an English teacher.

Mr. Dentino: Caleb remains mystery. We’re still trying to figure him out.

Peter: He was always questioning the purpose of life. But he always had way more answers than we did.

Ethan: His brain was an interesting and scary place.

Mr. Dentino: Caleb was a puzzle. And when he left us– he took a few pieces with him.

Justin: It sounds silly–but I’m still waiting for Caleb to walk through the classroom door and sit down next to me and smile.

The other night I had a dream. Caleb and I were in my classroom and there were no walls or ceiling. The sky was all around us and it was blue and deep and the sun was big and bright. Caleb was sitting in the first seat, second row.  A thick dusty book, like one you’d find in an attic, sat open on his desk. I moved to the book. It’s was in Russian. I looked at Caleb and tried to tell him that I can’t read it but I couldn’t speak. He looked up with a pair of soft blue eyes and said “I know”. And a cloud floated in front of the sun and my classroom grew dark.

Who was Caleb Brien?

I regret not getting to know Caleb when he was alive. I just assumed he was another typical teenager passing through my classroom. But he wasn’t. Caleb was a mystery to even those who knew him best.

And now that’s he’s dead, forever out of reach, I want to know more about the quiet, blue-eyed boy who once sat in the first seat, second row of my Literature class.

Isn’t it the responsibility of the living to keep the dead alive? To make sure death is not the end of the story?

Let this be a lesson in human connection.

Be well,


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