Lessons learned from my birthday friend

Robert Yoon and Brian Hull became friends in junior high school after learning they shared a birthday.

Story highlights

  • CNN's Robert Yoon shared a birthday with his schoolmate Brian Hull
  • Yoon thought they had little in common, but a friendship slowly formed
  • The pair promised to stay in contact after school ended but life got in the way
  • When Hull died at age 22, Yoon realized friendship is a treasure to be preserved
My friend Brian Hull and I were both born 40 years ago today.
Our lives overlapped for six years, from those first terrifying weeks of seventh grade through high school graduation. Then, like many of the friends you meet in those horrible, wonderful years, I never saw or talked to him again.
We didn't start out as friends; we started out as nothing. He was a guy in my math class who wore nice clothes and hung out with the other cool kids at lunch. I ran in different circles and had zero interaction with him up until the day we found out we had the same birthday.
That day, our math teacher, Mr. Sweitzer, had us go around the room and say our birthdays out loud to demonstrate a point about probability, that in a classroom of 30 people, there's a good chance that two of them have the same birthday. In our class, it was me and Brian. Once we discovered this connection, I turned to look at him, and he gave me a slight head nod as he raised a confident fist in the air and let out one of his characteristic low chuckles. After class, we talked briefly about where we were born and at what time of day.
That day, we became birthday friends. Over time, we became friends.
Brian was an easy person to like. He was a quiet and stoic leader, which on first blush could make him seem aloof or arrogant. Though he could be stingy with his words and often spoke in a low, monotone voice that adults often interpret as deep apathy, he was articulate and witty and thoughtful about the many things in the world that interested him. On top of that, he was really smart. One day in ninth-grade Spanish class, he rebelled against Miss Kahn's selected topic of conversation and instead suggested that we discuss the ongoing battle over Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court. In Spanish.
I admired how he was passionate about a wide range of things, like politics and philosophy and religion and the environment and the Grateful Dead. I admired how he never seemed to have an unsure or awkward moment. To this day, when I'm in an uncomfortable social situation, I'll wonder, "How would Brian Hull handle this?"
I saw this quality in him tested, maybe even stretched to the limit, in our junior year. Brian and I were still in many of the same classes, but for whatever reason, he seemed less and less engaged in school. I imagine that a common refrain in the teachers' lounge when it came to Brian was that he was smart but didn't apply himself. He missed a lot of classes; I don't know why. I just assumed at the time that it was because being popular was a full-time job. From what I could piece together from movies and TV, it looked exhausting.
Whatever the reason, the absences and missed assignments were taking a toll, and things came to a head in English class. I overheard the teacher tell him how serious the situation had become, and how critical the upcoming exam on "Oedipus Rex" would be. I knew he hadn't read the book and hadn't been in enough of the class discussions to fake it, so I offered to study with him. I had my own problems at the time, but helping him was a welcome distraction, a concrete action I could take when I felt powerless over other parts of my life. So we went over every mother-loving detail of that miserable Greek tragedy.
In the movie version, this is where I would say that he aced that exam and got his act together and excelled at everything he did thereafter, and it was all because of a little help from his friend who was born on the same day.
The reality is that I have no recollection of how he did on that exam or how he did in English or in any of his other classes that year, or what role I might have played in refocusing him. Still, inside the pages of my yearbook, he wrote a note thanking me for all the help.
I do know that he eventually pulled things together and that we both survived high school and moved on with our lives. I don't remember the last time I saw him or the last conversation we had. But I knew he had started college and focused on his loves of both philosophy and the environment.
On the night of October 22, 1995, Brian James Hull was struck and killed by a drunken driver as he and his roommate walked to a convenience store to buy charcoal. His friend was also killed. By that time, I had graduated from college and was living out-of-state. I missed the news. When I did finally hear, after the initial shock, my mind kept drifting to all the birthdays he wasn't going to have.
Brian was only 22 when he died. This is the 18th birthday he's missed. I've thought about him at each one. I think about whatever is going on in my life at the time, and how trivial it all suddenly seems.
I think about the man Brian would have become. By age 40, Brian Hull might have become a university professor or a successful entrepreneur or maybe an author. His argumentative streak would have made him a great lawyer. He'd probably be married, and maybe a father of kids who would quickly come to appreciate the Grateful Dead. And he would have excelled at all these things.
When I think about him today, I wish I had gotten to know him better. He wrote in my yearbook junior year, "I'll give you a call over the summer, and maybe we can go play a championship-like tennis match at a court within close proximity. Have a thoroughly stimulating summer, and I hope to see you over it."
We never played tennis, and we never saw each other over that summer. Life has a way of intervening.
Earlier this month, I visited Brian's final resting place for the first time to pay my respects in person. It's a very strange feeling to see your date of birth written on a headstone. It gives you a sense of your own mortality. It makes you think about the life you have and how you are living it.
When I think about him today, I wonder who the other Brians in my life are right now -- am I squandering any opportunities to play tennis with them or see them over the summer? And because of Brian, I try to make an effort to do something about it, albeit sometimes with more gusto than others.
All these years since our friendship began in Mr. Sweitzer's class, I thank him for that lesson.