I was mostly done with the third grade by the time we moved to Arizona, and I was to switch schools at the start of the fourth grade, so I didn't really make any friendships until then.
Franklin AuYeung was my first really close friend. I don't remember exactly how we got to know each other in the first place, but we were best buds for quite some time. In California I had a lot of friends I valued equally, but Franklin and I understood each other very well and got along famously.
It's his presence that led me to think of myself as a "smart kid," which is the social identity that made me who I am today. Franklin was very much a stereotype. His parents had moved to the USA from China, he was an overachiever (always, always straight As, great at piano, the whole Asian-kid routine), he even wore glasses. At that age, glasses always meant smart kid. Or nerd. Same thing.
He was Buddhist in the same sense that I was Christian - when people asked, that's what he knew to say. But, like me, he took a personal, unguided interest in the subject of God. He and I would talk about it often, philosophizing at a level slightly above what people would expect of our age, but not by much. We were, after all, smart kids. Smart. But kids. We never questioned whether or not God existed, but we tried to figure out how to get to know it better.
Organized religion wasn't for either of us. After Sparky's, I'd been to a few church events and they were always dreadful. When I was trying to learn about God, it had to feel like something between solving a puzzle and exploring new ideas. Church was just people telling me the rules. Even at that age, with all my interest in the subject, I never wanted to have to deal with church.
This was the stage where I really learned to ask questions, and think creatively. I credit Franklin with all that. We remained close friends from fourth grade until high school, where we each ended up going to different schools. We would call each other and chat every once in a while, but we essentially lost touch.
On February 23, 1998, I was watching the local news with my family and learned that Franklin was killed in a car crash that day. He was the sole fatality.