The following guest column is the text of a speech given at a memorial service for College sophomore Blaze Bernstein by his academic advisor, Jamie-Lee Josselyn.
My name is Jamie-Lee Josselyn and I was Blaze’s academic advisor at Penn. Gideon and Jeanne [Blaze's parents], thank you for letting us all be here with you today, and thank you for sharing Blaze with us.
I met Blaze in the fall of his senior year of high school when I visited him and his fellow writers at the Orange County School of the Arts, which, in my opinion, is one of the best schools for creative writing in the country. It is my job to recruit promising writers who are also strong students to Penn, and so, every year, one of my favorite days is when I gather with Josh Wood [the director of OCSA's Creative Writing Conservatory] and his students in their cozy, book-filled basement space and we exchange copies of our respective literary magazines and eat some snacks together. Blaze emailed me immediately following my fall 2015 visit to express his excitement about Penn’s Kelly Writers House, and I remember thinking, “How is your name Blaze?”
It didn’t take long for me to realize that Blaze’s name was not the only thing about him that made him unique — not by a long shot. After being blown away by his short story, “The Animals Among Us,” I wrote a letter of advocacy in support of Blaze’s candidacy and when he was admitted to Penn, I asked to serve as his advisor. Because Blaze was as brilliant when it came to science as he was with writing, he was also invited to join a rigorous dual-degree program. When I heard this news, I was proud of Blaze, but also a little nervous. Were the biochemists trying to steal one of our best writers?
In my role as Blaze’s advisor, I would help him balance his intellectual and creative life at Penn, both inside the classroom and outside. I didn’t need to be nervous that we wouldn’t see Blaze at the Writers House. Before he even arrived on campus as a freshman, he was published in the Penn Review. He was the first high school student I ever knew, out of the 500 or so that I meet every year, to be published in one of our magazines as a high school student. That was Blaze. He described his writing process in that piece, “Picking Marbles From Dirt” – “I write until I can’t write anymore, until the page is bursting with so many words and letters and syllables that if I were to fit one more period into the end of a sentence, the entire page might just burst.”
Blaze strove to get as much as he could from his time at Penn, to build a life that was full of the things he loved: chemistry and psychology, writing and cooking, friends. This was not always an easy equation to solve, for Blaze or for many students whose passions are diverse. What I remember from my conversations with Blaze is that he was always seeking the right balance, making changes that others might shy away from, resisting the sense that he “should” be pursuing any particular path and instead working to choose what would make him happy, whether it was a new apartment, the position of managing editor of our food magazine, Penn Appétit, or the friends he made who also loved food and jokes and doing things their own way.
In this unspeakably sad time, I’ve been buoyed by conversations with Blaze’s friends. Another advisee of mine at Penn, Jacob, sent me some thoughts he wrote to Blaze, and he said I could share them today. Jacob wrote, “Your kindness, intelligence, charisma (and hey, uniqueness, nerve, and talent) were apparent from the moment I met you. I'm probably going to miss texting you about food the most. In just the week since you've been gone, I've had the urge to send you so many things, to tag you in posts and snap you pictures of the shows I'm watching. You made the world feel small and me less alone, and for that I thank you.”
As a writer and teacher myself, I can’t help but think about how Blaze’s name is a verb. And not just any verb, one that means “to burn fiercely or brightly.” That was Blaze. He was active, not passive. He was never complacent. He was funny and sassy. He made it clear when he thought things could be better. I loved our conversations about what he believed education should be, about what happens in a classroom when students and professors are mutually engaged in common goals and in supporting one another. I am going to miss Blaze deeply, more than I can adequately say. I will honor him every day by incorporating his values and his spirit, his Blaze-ness, into my own life and in my conversations with students. We can’t settle for what is easy, what is simply given, or what we imagine someone else’s standards dictate. Blaze helped me see this and I’m so grateful to him for it. May his memory be a blessing and may his memory burn fiercely and brightly in all of us. Thank you.
JAMIE-LEE JOSSELYN is the Associate Director for Recruitment at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing.
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