Davy Rothbart Opens Up About His Favorite Found Item

For the past decade Davy Rothbart has been a constant source of inspiration in my life. Davy is an author, contributor to This American Life, and a documentary filmmaker. He is also the co-creator of Found magazine, a beautiful collage of art, grocery lists, love notes, pictures, and so much more. While many of the found items are hilarious, some of the backstories of the people they belonged to are harrowing.

In 2007 I started my former blog Heavy in the Streets. I reached out to Davy and asked if he would do an interview about his favorite Found item. He agreed and we connected in an instant. As we talked about his item of choice Davy was both funny and poignant.

I love the story Davy shared with me and have revisited it several times over the years. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed interviewing Davy.

“All the people I’ve met through reading these found notes are a part of my life.”

Gino: My favorite Found story was in the first book. A man named Don Smith was at a canal near his house and he found a note in a bottle. A kid named Roger J. Clay had written the note nearly 20 years earlier. The man did some research and found out that Roger had died in a motorcycle accident years ago. Don was able to find Roger’s parents and give them the note. For me, it was the best backstory of any find. It really hit home. Are there any Found stories that you’ve found particularly moving?

Davy: Have you seen this kid Aaron Hartman’s Algebra test in the first Found book? He’s from Portland, Maine.

Gino: It’s sounds familiar…

Davy: He didn’t know the answers to the problems on this Algebra test, so he came up with funny answers. They asked him to graph two functions, so he graphed a smiling face and a frowning face. There’s one problem that says, “Use the properties of logarithms to solve this equation” and he drew an old man saying, “Get off my property.” There are all these rhymed couplets that he wrote on the back of the test. One says,

“My name is Aaron
I’m in Algebra Two
I sit in class for an hour
And nothing to do.”

“The teacher gave him a zero, which is fucked up. If he’s my kid, he’s getting an A+, best grade in the class.”

This kid didn’t know any answers to the problems, but he made up all these hilarious answers instead. The teacher gave him a zero, which is fucked up. If he’s my kid, he’s getting an A+, best grade in the class. He could have just left the page blank, but he showed off this great creative spark. I might say something like “Aaron, clearly you need to talk to me so we can get you caught up to speed. But your answers are hilarious and you have a great mind.” You have to find some way to encourage him.

I love this kid. I read this note all the time for a couple years. These people were even trying to do an Aaron Hartman college scholarship fund. They were gonna build a fund for him to go to college, because he clearly needed to be at a school where he was appreciated for his talents. I read this test on This American Life for this live tour we did. Tons of people heard it and emailed me about how much they loved this kid.

“I love this kid. I read this note all the time for a couple years.”

Everybody was like, “We gotta find this kid and let him know how much he is appreciated.” People had written Aaron all these letters I was going to try to forward to him. One day somebody emailed me who had done some online research. It turns out that a couple of years after he had done this algebra test, at the age of 19, he was driving with three friends in his moms Geo Metro or something. They were all drunk, and they hit a tree at 100 miles an hour and they all died. I was fucking crushed. I just started crying as soon as I read the article.

I found out when I was in the middle of a tour. I used his test to close the show at the end of each night. It was so funny it would bring down the house. So the night after I found out I read it and everyone was laughing. After I was done reading it I said, “Yeah, um, he’s fucking dead. Him and his friends all died in a drunk driving accident, it’s so fucked up.” Everyone was stunned. And then I had no idea what to say so I was like, “Well, have a good night everyone thanks for coming.” The audience felt manipulated because I got them all hyped up and laughing and then I told them that the person who did the test was dead.

“I was fucking crushed. I just started crying as soon as I read the article.”

Then, what got even weirder is I continued to read the test because I still loved it, but I wouldn’t explain what had happened to Aaron. My brother and my other friend who was on tour with us would look at each other after I read it. There was this horribly sad ending, but I didn’t tell anybody else. These days I don’t even read it as part of the show.

“The audience felt manipulated because I got them all hyped up and laughing and then I told them that the person who did the test was dead.”

Gino: Yeah, it seems like there isn’t really a right way to do it.

Davy: Exactly.

Gino: That’s an incredibly powerful story. Thank you for sharing it with me. It’s heartbreaking.

Davy: Yeah, I haven’t really talked about it before.

Gino: It gives you an intimate connection to someone you don’t know. And that’s what I think is so important about the whole Found project.

Davy: Absolutely. It’s amazing to connect with people through these Found notes. Reading through all these Found letters and notes, the people who write them become a part of your life. All the people I’ve met through reading these found notes are a part of my life.

I am a director of academic support/special education teacher who loves to write about books, music, records, and samplers. I also love interviewing people about these things. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, and recommending it on Medium.
You can also check out my Bookshelf Beats publication.