School library honors a teacher who loved reading

Jamie Soukup Reid was pregnant and entering her third year teaching English at the Harrity campus of Mastery Charter School when she and her husband were killed.
Jamie Soukup Reid was pregnant and entering her third year teaching English at the Harrity campus of Mastery Charter School when she and her husband were killed.
Posted: March 11, 2014

She got married in a hall that was once a library reading room, surrounded by rows of books.

Which was no surprise.

Jamie Soukup Reid loved and lived in books.

The characters wandered across the page and up into her consciousness: Leopold Bloom traversing Dublin in Ulysses, Katniss Everdeen fighting dictatorship in The Hunger Games, Esperanza Cordero overcoming poverty in The House on Mango Street.

And when Reid died, suddenly and young, her friends claimed selections from her shelves as mourning tokens, believing that in the space where Jamie's hand had crossed a page, they might for a moment meet again.

Reid, 25, and her husband, Will, 26, were newlywed Philadelphia schoolteachers who died in an August car crash while returning from a friend's wedding in North Carolina. They had flown to Asheville and were traveling back to the airport when the driver of their hired limousine lost control, sped off the highway, and smashed into a tree.

Jamie Reid was pregnant with their first child and poised to enter her third year of teaching seventh-grade English at the Harrity campus of Mastery Charter School.

Now, colleagues, family, and friends are crafting a permanent, personal monument: a Harrity school library where children can explore the world and imagine new ones, where they can discover Reid's passion for reading and writing and perhaps pause to recall a woman gone too soon.

"I can't think of anything more fitting," said Stephanie Silver, who was Reid's maid of honor at her May wedding. "She inspired a lot of kids, and libraries are inspiring places."

What excited Jamie Reid about libraries, her friends say, was not just access but ethics: the belief that all children deserve books and education, whatever their circumstances or finances.

So far, $50,000 of the $95,000 cost has been raised, and officials plan a formal dedication on June 6.

The Jamie Soukup Reid Library will rise in what is now a classroom, soon to be painted and outfitted with new shelves and equipment. Reid's degrees from Whitman College and the University of Pennsylvania will hang on the walls.

"Our overriding sense is, we wish it weren't necessary," said her father, Ron Soukup, a retired Microsoft engineer in Washington state. "But there couldn't be a more perfect tribute. If anyone loved books and reading and learning, it was Jamie."

Reveling in books

How does a young girl fall in love with books? Even now, her parents aren't fully certain.

But by the time she was 4, Jamie was reading everything she could find. She would gather an armful at the bookstore, knowing her father and mother would buy all she wanted so long as she read them. Two weeks later, she was done and back at the store.

"After a few months of that, I said, 'We have to find a library,' " Ron Soukup said. "I was spending as much on books as I was on utility bills."

The thing was, though, Jamie wanted to own the books, to revel in their color and texture - the feel of the pages, the designs of the covers, the choices of font and type size. Books transformed her. In college, the impact of reading Ulysses drove her to Ireland, to tread the same streets as Joyce's characters.

Jamie led the Pioneer student newspaper at Whitman, in Walla Walla, Wash., and embraced a role as resident adviser of the university Writing House, where she worked to attract students of different interests.

"She didn't want to exclude anyone who didn't feel they could call themselves a writer," said Jenna Mukuno, then a house resident and now an editor at an environmental-policy institute in Oakland, Calif. "Oftentimes, it would be the chem major who would produce the most amazing piece."

Reid threw themed parties based on books, including The Great Gatsby, and created a CD of offbeat songs about literature, including  "Oxford Comma" by Vampire Weekend.

Jamie's own writing touched darkness and light, friends say. One story described a woman on trial for having forgetfully left her child to die in a closed car. As the mother's attention drifts between the prosecutor's questions and memories of her lost baby, it is clear no court can punish her more than she has punished herself.

In graduate school, Jamie devoured books she would teach to students, such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie's tale of a 14-year-old boy on the Spokane reservation.

"Whenever she drove me home from class, there was always some new young-adult novel in the back," said Megan Carlson, a Chicago communications specialist who studied with Jamie at Penn. "She really loved sharing her joy of reading with her kids. It made her so unbelievably happy to get them engaged in the same stories she loved."

Jamie and Will came separately to Philadelphia in 2010 to join Teach for America and met while earning master's degrees in urban education. Books helped draw them together, Will similarly voracious as he plowed through everything from Kurt Vonnegut novels to Buddhist texts.

He taught sixth-grade math at the People for People Charter School on North Broad Street, a few blocks from the couple's apartment at Lofts 640, while Jamie found a home at Harrity in West Philadelphia.

At Halloween she dressed up as Ms. Frizzle, donning a big red wig and star-shaped sunglasses to portray the brave-but-wacky teacher from the Magic School Bus series.

"She made reading come alive to kids," said Debi Durso, the school principal at the time.

Jamie and Will were married on May 16 at the College of Physicians, their vows exchanged in the Ashhurst Room, which houses a historic card catalog. In wedding photos, there are long rows of books on the shelves behind them.

Driver charged

Police have charged Rodney Koon, 46, of Asheville, with driving while impaired and two counts of felony death by motor vehicle. His next court hearing is scheduled for April 14.

In the days after the crash, stricken friends gathered at the couple's apartment, where they were asked to take an item as a remembrance.

"I immediately wanted a well-worn book from her shelf," Mukuno said.

She chose Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, because it was obvious from its wear and markings that Jamie had read and reread it.

"I thought about her reading it while I was reading it," Mukuno said. "I go to that book now when I'm missing her, or feeling I need to be close to her."


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage

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