From his 4th and 5th grade Shipley classmates
Nathaniel and I were best friends in 4th and 5th grades as we shared a love of sports, aviation, and science, to name a few. As adults, we shared an interest in teaching Middle School students. I have no doubt in my mind that Nathaniel grew up to be a fantastic individual…I will always remember the amazing times I spent at your house, “exploring” Cheyney University and making ice cream in your backyard. Those memories will be with me forever, and Nathaniel will always be my best friend.
The most memorable part of our Shipley 4th grade experience was our trip to Amish country. Our class ventured out to Lancaster PA for a variety of special opportunities—a live cattle auction, lunch at an authentic Amish restaurant, a tour of an Amish farmhouse, among others. But the event we students were most excited about, without question, was the annual baseball game against the children of an Amish schoolhouse. Legend had it that no Shipley class had ever succeeded in beating them, so we prepared during recess, putting together the best lineup and getting ourselves in peak condition for the big game. No one was more excited than Nathaniel—he was convinced that the Shipley squad would be a formidable opponent, and as it turned out, he was correct.
After several innings of play, the Amish children were winning only by a narrow margin, 7-6. Shipley was up to bat with the bases loaded as Nathaniel approached the batter’s box. Anyone who knew Nathaniel knew what was about to happen—he was almost certainly going to hit a home run, thanks to his tremendous athleticism, and Shipley would win the game 10-7. But Nathaniel never got a chance to swing; as he stepped up to the plate, Mrs. Van Horn, our beloved 4th grade teacher (who knew as well as anybody Nathaniel’s extreme athletic talent), declared that the game was over.
Most of us were furious. We piled into our school bus, upset that we hadn’t been given the chance to secure a victory. In typical 4th grader fashion, we bemoaned Mrs. Van Horn’s decision, ranting about how unfair she had been. All of us, that is, except Nathaniel. “She made the right decision,” I remember him saying. The rest of us—a group of 10-year olds—couldn’t figure out how he wasn’t angry, why he wasn’t upset about his denied opportunity. But of course Mrs. Van Horn had done the right thing: she couldn’t let Shipley defeat our kind Amish hosts—it wouldn’t have been polite or appropriate. But most of us wouldn’t realize that until years later; Nathaniel was the only one among us who realized it at the time.
There was another instance during 4th grade that I suspect all of my teachers and classmates from that year—and likely even Nathaniel himself—have forgotten. Our grade was organized into groups of 3 for a challenge-based project: given only a few sheets of white paper, we were instructed to attempt to lift three dictionaries off the ground. We set to work in the Lower School cafeteria, which quickly devolved into noise-filled chaos. After about 20 minutes, most groups were failing in their task, but one by one, the groups (most likely cheating off one another) realized that rolling the paper into cylinders created structures with the necessary strength to hold the dictionaries. After the challenge was completed, Mrs. Van Horn tested each one of the nearly identical structures: it was difficult to distinguish one from another. Yet I’ve never forgotten her remarks to our class afterwards: “I heard a lot of people talking about cylinders,” she said, “but you know who said it first? Nathaniel.” Over the din of 60 screaming 4th graders, she heard Nathaniel’s voice.
Though we spent only two years together at Shipley, Nathaniel has never been far from my mind; the impact he had on me and on others in that community has lasted well over a decade. As is evident from both of these memories, Nathaniel’s ability to keep giving of himself and of his wisdom, even after immediate contact with him has ended, is remarkable.
And so even though Nathaniel has left us, I have little doubt that, through the noise of life, I will continue to hear his voice for years to come.
Nathaniel was so well liked, even in his short time at Shipley, and everybody remembered him so fondly.
I felt so lucky to have Nathaniel as a friend, even at ten or eleven. He was incredibly popular, which I found frustrating because it meant I didn’t get to hang out with him as much as I would have liked. After he left I always looked forward to the possibility of running into him, and everyone who had known him was excited to see him when we could. When he came back to visit Shipley, it was like a celebrity entered the classroom; he was mobbed. There wasn’t a single person who didn’t adore him.
I think there was something about his personality that really stuck with me, and became a measure of what a good person, and friend, should be: quiet, smart, funny, loyal, and infallibly kind…I remember meeting up for ice cream to catch up after our junior year, and how easy it was to talk to him for hours, even after a long period when we hadn’t spoken. Running into Nathaniel always made me feel better. His kindness had a profound effect on my life, as on so many others’ at Shipley and beyond.
From a memory book created by his best friends
When my parents ran the Westtown School “Earth Literacy Program,” Nathaniel and I were often enlisted into service as slave labor. Whether it be planting potatoes, spinning compost tumblers or stringing net to keep the deer out of the mini-farm, my parents always seemed to have something for us to do.
One evening in late spring, we were outside of the greenhouse waiting for my dad to finish watering some seedlings. Both of us were anxious to leave school and get down to the serious business of hanging out. Dad returned after no time at all, but when he opened the door it was not to get in and drive away. “Do you hear that?” he asked from the driver’s door.
“It sounds like there are cats fighting behind the theater. I may be here awhile. Why don’t you to go check it out.”
Having nothing better to do and always down for an adventure, Nathaniel and I scurried down the wood chip covered path behind the art center. As we rounded the corner of the building, we heard what dad had been talking about. The sound was like the combination of shrieking cats and screaming children. The noise drew our gaze up into a standing dead tree. The trunk shot eighty feet straight up into the sky and then abruptly ended where the canopy had been ripped off by storm of disease. Out to our right hung the only remaining branch. On that branch we found the source of the screams. Two raccoons.
Nathaniel and I sat down on the hill side fascinated as the raccoons fought their way back and forth across the branch. The larger and more vocal of the two animals was driving the other in towards the trunk of the tree. When the retreating raccoon’s flank struck against the trunk, the fighting began in earnest. The screaming was joined by bites, scratching and yowling. In a short time the larger raccoon overpowered the smaller and flung her from the tree. The falling raccoon tore at the trunk of the tree as she fell, showering the ground below with broken chips of bark. She stopped her fall twenty feet above the ground and began to climb back up. “She’s crazy!” I heard Nathaniel whisper.
“Why would she…”
“Look!” I looked up to where Nathaniel was pointing. The larger raccoon had disappeared into a hollow at the top of the tree while our attention was on the falling female. He now re-emerged with a baby raccoon in his mouth which he proceeded to toss off the side of the tree. The small one fell with a terrible EEEEEE! and landed with a Thud. At this point Nathaniel started freaking out. “What do we do?”’
“I don’t…” my words were cut short by the screams of the next baby raccoon plummeting to the ground. This one bounced and after a moment rose from the ground and began to climb back up the tree, as its mother had done.
“We can’t let it go back up there,” Nathaniel whispered as the next baby dropped screaming from the tree. At the time of our raccoon encounter I remembered that these animals have a high incidence of rabies. The behavior of the large male could have been natural but I did not want to run the risk.
I ran down the hill towards the tree pulling my T-Shirt over my head as I went. “Come on! Help me,” I shouted back to Nathaniel. He was already right behind me, shirt in hand.
I pinned the little climber against the tree with my shirt, gripped his little struggling body and wrapped him into a baby raccoon burrito. Thus straight jacketed, I placed him on the hill side and went in search of the third raccoon that had fallen.
Meanwhile, Nathaniel had bundled the first to fall which still lay stunned by the tangle of roots upon which it had landed. I never found the third baby raccoon and while we were hard at work bundling the first two a fourth little body fell from the sky and bounced off the mossy ground. One of us must have run up to the car to get something in which to wrap the last baby.
When my father finally returned from the greenhouse, Nathaniel and I were standing at the back of the car with three baby raccoons rolled up in our clothes, only their heads sticking up above the folds of fabric. They were by this point calm and did not resist handling. “Looks like you found the source of the noise. Tell me what happened?”
We told him. At the end of the story, we concluded that the only reasonable course of action at this point was to take the cute little creatures home. So we did. We cared for the baby raccoons for a few days, named them (at this point I cannot remember any of the names although I am sure that Nathaniel would have been able to remember). While the Raccoons lived at my house in a large wooden box, they were amiable and happy to be handled and played with. The second to fall seemed less intelligent than the rest – perhaps brain damaged from his fall. Eventually we took them to an animal shelter.
Living in Community
A week after my 25th birthday, Nathaniel and I had a conversation about living in community. My sister Nora had been down to visit me the week before from California. During her visit we had talked about my frustration that my friends were scattering to the diaspora. I told Nora that what I wanted was to have a community of people I could trust to pass through the struggles of life with. Nora, in a nice and thought provoking way, told me I was delusional. She implied that this is not how the real world works. In the real world you have a family, move somewhere, and build up a new community wherever you landed. Your community does not come to you. She may be right.
As always, when upset, I called Nathaniel to get his take. He listened to me rant and rave about how I did not want the world to work the way Nora said it did. One of Nathaniel’s many gifts was his skill as a listener. We took a course on active listening in late middle school. Nathaniel complained and bashed the course the whole time. But whatever he learned stuck. After that course I saw all the lessons we had learned become incorporated into his listening.
On this occasion Nathaniel surprised me. Instead of his usual echoing back what he heard me say or empathizing with my feelings, Nathaniel said, “I’ll move to a community with you.”
I was so shocked I did not know how to respond. We both knew it would not happen, yet that he would even say that was a gift to me. A gift of friendship and loyalty – two of the things I value most highly. He was my only friend who went all in.
Long Beach Island
In 7th grade, sometime in October, I went to one of Nathaniel’s relative’s beach house in Long Beach Island. This was right around the time he was really into rollerblading (in the extreme sport half pipe sense, not the jorts on Venice Beach sense) and I was super excited about riding my Razor scooter. Pause for laughter. I recall this being one of the first times we did something really substantive together. Hanging out at school and on weekends is all well and good, but this felt like we were really doing something.
A few things stick out from this trip. I drank cranberry juice for the first time. I also removed all of the chocolate chips from a cookie (I didn’t like dark chocolate at this point in my life) and left them in a neat pile next to my chair in the new van. Nathaniel confronted me and I said I had no idea how they had gotten there.
We tooled around LBI for a while but it wasn’t especially pedestrian friendly so we snagged some skimboards and made our way to the beach. In October. Even though it was cold, this was incredible. There was no one else on the beach, the break was good, and the sun was out. We skimboarded for hours, and in spite of our resolution not to get soaked (sorry Judy), we eventually, somehow, went swimming. In October. My adult brain thinks back and finds it impossible to imagine we weren’t freezing, but I can’t remember feeling cold for even a minute.
The Tracks and NAM
Nate (Eli) Blood-Patterson
Junior year and senior year, Nathaniel and I spent a ton of time together. Almost every day, one of us would give the other a call, and usually we would head over to the other’s house. Sometimes we would just read together or do something similarly studious, but often we would spend our home schooling time chatting. Typical of Nathaniel, these conversations would move between the philosophical, military, psychological, and the just-whatever-happened-to-be-on-our-minds. Often, we would walk the railroad tracks and the hillside between Nathaniel’s house and my old house on Station Road.
Senior year, we watched a ton of Vietnam war movies. We would talk about war, how the movies represented conflict, why they showed what they did, and how they chose to deal with the moral mood in the country. A lot of the way I think about art and literature (and thus a huge part of what I did in college) came out of this experience.
“Nathaniel” — An 8th Grade Graduation Essay
“Lili, you complain a lot for someone who is actually a good runner.” I paused, startled by the comment, and my complaint about the weather died on my lips. Glancing over at the tall, strong figure running easily beside me, I felt a sense of anger, and a challenge. Right then and there, I made a promise to myself: I would never give Nathaniel Asselin another reason ever again to doubt my toughness and work ethic. He would never hear another complaint escape my lips again.
As the month of August was drawing to a close, and the beginning of my eighth grade year was looming closer, it came to my attention that actually beginning the cross country training which I had been putting off for the entire summer might be a good idea. So along with group of people who were also planning on running in the fall, we decided to organize a meeting at school, and begin the agony of training together. The first couple of these meetings were not especially successful, because Teacher John McKinstry was unable to run with us due to a knee injury, and we found it exceptionally difficult to motivate ourselves in the extreme heat. So these training sessions ended as most of my prior running experiences had done that summer: jogging a couple of steps, then collapsing due to cramps or exhaustion. On possibly one of the hottest days that entire summer- so hot in fact, that Teacher John had turned on his newly purchased air conditioner, which he saved only for extreme conditions- our small group of wannabe cross country runners was joined by another member.
I didn’t yet know his name; I had no idea who he was or why he was there. All I knew was that he was making me run three miles, mostly uphill in the blistering heat, and I did not appreciate it. Yes, I was training for cross country, which involves running, and I knew I would actually be required to run at some point. But I was angry at this complete stranger who was making me move my legs at a faster pace than a jog during my summer vacation in the sweltering heat. This was the first time Nathaniel heard me complain. I complained about everything: from how much I hated running, to how much I was dreading returning to school. We ran, stretched, and talked. Our conversations ranged from topics like good movies, to school. We found that most of us shared the dislike for the book Animal Farm. Nathaniel agreed, saying “ Everyone hates that book, but shh, don’t tell my mom!” That day, I found out four things about Nathaniel: His name, that his mother was Teacher Judy, he was going to be my coach, and that he preferred Brooks running sneakers.
Eventually, the first day of school came and went, and along with it, the beginning of the cross country season. All those who had not experienced Nathaniel’s intense coaching style were in even more shock than I had been. We ran faster and farther than ever before. Every single person on the team improved drastically, and despite our lack of year round Olympic-level runners, we even went on to win most of our meets. Cross country wasn’t all intense hill workouts and interval training. I don’t think I will ever forget those countless games of capture the flag where Nathaniel’s team won every single game because he was able to outrun every one of us without breaking a sweat, or the mock meets that we staged when Nathaniel ran the two- mile cross country course in just eleven minutes, leaving the rest of us choking on his dust.
To fully understand the relationship we shared with Nathaniel, you have to understand the sport of cross country. Cross country is a sport looked down upon by other athletes and non-runners. Some even go as far as to say that it is not a sport. I am here to tell you from personal experience, that cross country most definitely is a sport. It is one of the most intense, most difficult sports that exist. Given, there are no ball skills or plays that you are required to learn but in cross country, when you get tired, you don’t go rest on a bench, and running isn’t cancelled because of weather. What other sport requires you to wake up at such early hours in the morning that they can barely be called morning, to exercise in the pouring down rain or snow, besides Cross country? Cross country is a sport where your biggest enemy is yourself. This is especially difficult for me, because I am notoriously bad at coming to peace with myself. I am always trying to change, and find it hard to accept who I am. During a race, the gun goes off and it is just me and my discouraging thoughts, left alone to struggle with each other for the next few miles.
Although the physical aspect of running is definitely a huge part of the sport, the mental part is even more important. I often find myself thinking either before or during a race of all the things that could possible go wrong, or even ways to hurt myself so I won’t be able to run. For me, running is a love/hate relationship. People think that I am crazy for putting myself intentionally through that pain, and I sometimes can’t help but agree. Before Nathaniel, there was no love part for me in running. It was just something I had to do. He taught me about the feeling of elation it gives you, that sensation that you can only get by exerting yourself to your maximum limit, by winning a tough race by just a stride at the end. It leaves you with a feeling of accomplishment, and self acceptance.
If I had looked ahead last year in seventh grade, I would not have seen myself as a captain. Captains are strong, and confident. They know exactly who they are and what they want. I can tell you, this was definitely not who I was. It still isn’t, and I don’t know if it will ever be. But Nathaniel helped get me closer to that goal. He taught me that captains don’t complain; that’s for the rest of the team to do. They always take the blame when something goes wrong, easily and without complaint. One meet, after I had ran an especially bad race, they were handing out awards to the top runners. Of course I knew I wasn’t going to receive a prize, even though had only missed out by a couple of places. As I walked over to Nathaniel, after the race, clutching my side and gasping for breath, an excuse about the outcome of the race already on my lips, he leaned down, picked up a piece of rubber from the track, and handed it to me, saying “This is your award. Don’t complain, just take it. Congratulations.” He then sauntered away to talk to someone else. I just stood there and stared after him for a while, confused. Today, I still have that piece of rubber. It is my favorite award I have ever received and I keep it as a reminder of responsibility.
Nathaniel taught me almost everything I know about running. I ran through pain, tough times, and happiness along side him. He was my teacher, my coach, but he was more than that; he was a friend. A friend who taught me to accept myself, to embrace who I am, and not to complain because I really don’t have much to complain about. He taught me how to love running, and how my biggest opponent isn’t just the girl in front of me. So now when I run, I run for Nathaniel, who taught me that my deadliest enemy is myself, and once I overcome her, there is nothing that can stop me.
Excerpts from notes from some of his Middle School students
~Teacher Nathaniel had the worst taste in music. I can honestly say his looking through my ipod was the funniest thing I have ever seen…He was an awesome guy, the fastest person I know.
~Teacher Nathaniel helped me during the course of the year. When I was in Cross Country, I was badly out of shape. It would have been so easy for him to let me sit out of practice, but instead, he ran behind, stayed with me, and helped me stay with the team.
~Nathaniel was a really fun babysitter when I was younger. He always had fun ideas for games, super powers, and a good imagination. I remember playing fantasy games that involved slaying the undead, closing portals, and capturing gems that could save the universe. That all felt real…I think my true love for fantasy came from that. Finding the placement of dragons, or trying to get out of a canyon full of radioactivity with only a wrench and a can of coke…I will really miss him.
~It was an honor to have Teacher Nate as a Cross Country Coach.
Excerpts from an essay by his cousin, Conor Knox
Late in the afternoon on Friday the 15th of April, 2011, I sat on the floor of a Barnes & Noble in New York City reading and rereading a favorite poem by Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird.” Not knowing everything that had happened that day, I sat peacefully just reading. Little did I know that these six simple stanzas summarized what my cousin Nathaniel was feeling that day, as well as his whole life before.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and is tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom
The free bird thinks of another breeze
an the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
There are no better words to describe Nathaniel than these. My cousin changed my life and helped and healed and made me who I am today. The only person in my life I truly call a hero.
In the first line of Maya’s poem “A free bird leaps.” Nan sure could leap. He leapt with every step he took with that 6’ 4” body as I, being quite a bit younger and shorter, ran alongside to keep up with him. But Nan was never the free bird. He tried to fly and “dare(d) to claim the sky” but there was always something that held him back.
The second stanza speaks of a bird that is locked inside a cage, enraged at his situation and unable to go anywhere, so he simply sings. This is closer to Nathaniel. He was caged; imprisoned by his mind, but he never let his situation give him visible anger, and he always kept trying to do what he wanted to with his life. To do whatever made him happy. “His wings are clipped and his feet tied/ so he opens his throat to sing.” He wasn’t able to fly and accomplish all he wanted, but that never meant he didn’t try. His feet, however, were never tied because, boy, could he run and run and run. He just never stopped. It’s what he wanted to do. It’s what put him at ease and he was quite phenomenal at it. Although his wings were clipped, he could still sing, something he was surprisingly good at and I don’t think many knew he was. I remember driving to places such as Blockbuster in the van with him listening to our favorite songs and singing along to them. He was far better than I.
“But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams/ his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream.” Nan stood not on a grave of dreams, but right beside the ship that would take him there. He had the materials and the intelligence to accomplish anything, but he was unable to continue past that first step. I remember one of his summer visits to New Hampshire where he was studying his EMT book. He always told me that was what he wanted to be. Every free moment he had, that book was in his hand and he was studying. Not just studying, STUDYING with so much vigor and enthusiasm that it bewildered me. Nan never put half his effort into anything. He threw every ounce of effort into his life. Whether it was studying to be an EMT, running that last mile in record time, or beating the last level on a video game he was playing; Nan put everything he had and then more into it.
Angelou concludes her poem with the lines “for the caged bird/ sings for freedom.” I don’t think there is a better way to summarize Nathaniel than these two lines. He ran but was locked inside of something he could not control. He tried to fly, but his wings were cut and they wouldn’t mend completely. So he sang. He sang through his actions and all his love. He sang the most beautiful song I have ever heard because he sang from his heart. From some meaning that was deeper inside him than that wonderful heart and beautiful soul he had. Nathaniel sang his whole life for one thing which was the simplest but the hardest to grasp. Nathaniel sang for freedom.
From a friend he made in the hospital
I wanted to let you know how special Nathaniel was. He is someone I will never forget. I will always be blessed to have known him. Whenever I was upset or crying, Nathaniel would be the first person to comfort me and give me a shoulder to lean on. However, for the majority of our time together we were always laughing, playing games, and playing jokes on one another. At night, when it was time for us to all be in our rooms, Nathaniel and I would sit in our doorways across from each other and just talk and laugh until we had to go to sleep. When I was at the hospital, I felt so scared and alone, but having Nathaniel there was such a gift, and I smiled whenever I saw him. He was so strong and fought his disease so hard, and for that he inspired me… Nathaniel was one of the strongest people I have ever met, yet had such a beautiful and gentle soul…he was such a gift to me and I will forever be thankful for that.