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By Melanie Asmar
September 2 was a bad day at Barnum Elementary.
Just a few days earlier, teachers at the west Denver school had started the new year with considerable apprehensions. By all accounts, the 1992-1993 session had been a difficult one. But they still had hopes that a fresh start could turn things around.
And then the news hit.
"We heard that Hillary Adams was dead," one Barnum teacher recalls. Adams had just finished a four-year stint as a bilingual first-grade teacher at the school, and had hardly begun her new job teaching second grade at Cheltenham Elementary. At 28 she was a skilled, dedicated teacher whom her friends remember as enthusiastic and almost always happy.
"Yes," the teacher continues. "It was an awful day."
It got worse. Over the next 24 hours, it became clear that Adams had taken her own life, and that her former students would have to be told.
"My daughter Joanna loved Miss Adams to pieces," says Jennifer Eckendorf, whose two children attended Barnum last year. "Even when Joanna was in trouble, she loved her teacher."
She particularly loved Miss Adams for bringing in a dentist as a guest speaker. After that, Joanna decided to become a dentist. "She was always looking in people's mouths," her mother laughs, "and she even wrote a book shaped like a tooth. Hillary, on her own time, drove Joanna over to the dentist's office to give him the book. They got to go in her little sports car and everything."
Joanna could barely comprehend that her favorite teacher was gone. "She was brokenhearted," her mother says. "She cried a lot and she talked to Hillary a lot, through God. Then, when she found out how Hillary died, she got angry and punched the wall."
Barnum's adults have had an equally trying time dealing with Adams's death.
"It's not over," says another teacher. "It's like a knot that won't go away."
It's a knot some feel would be better left untangled.
"People never understand why someone kills himself," explains Barnum teacher David Bokken, who thinks nothing would be gained by an examination of Hillary Adams's life and death. "They want to find some reason to point to. I think it's way too complicated for that."
But Bokken's colleagues, many of whom say they're worried that talking to Westword could cost them their jobs, are not content to let the tragedy of Hillary Adams rest in peace. Because the very atmosphere that made them so apprehensive, they say, is what finally got to Hillary. Although no one--not even her closest friends and family--knows what drove Adams to such a final solution, everyone remembers the particular stresses of her last year. "To work in that school was like professional suicide," says former Barnum teacher Jerry Smith. "When Hillary committed literal suicide, it was almost more than we could take."
Lisa Wright had become Adams's good friend while teaching music at Barnum, and after moving to Colorado Springs continued to speak with her every week. "I remember her telling me there was such tension," she says. "She said all of a sudden everyone was afraid for their jobs. It was all about how things were going at school, and it just wasn't like Hillary. "By summer," Wright continues, "she knew that once upon a time she was a good teacher, but no more."
"I wish you could have known her," says Hillary's mother, Pat Adams. "She had this gentle way. She was my youngest, born on Valentine's Day, an Aquarian. She had red hair--later on it was faded a little with perms. And she was always kind of a person of the world."
Hillary grew up in Evergreen with an older brother and sister, a father who'd worked for years as an industrial salesman and a mother who evolved from housewife to massage therapist to psychotherapist. If her friends and family remember it accurately, Hillary's childhood was a happy one.
"I was six years older, so we didn't really get close until after we grew up," recalls Wendy Smith, Hillary's sister, "but after that, really, she was my best friend."
When it came time to go to college, Hillary "wasn't sure what she wanted to do, but was interested in a lot of things," her mother says. "She was good at putting together clothing, so she went to the CSU school of design. Her first year, a human development class was required--and it just grabbed her." Adams became one of the first students to enroll in Colorado State University's new, five-year human development program, which took her to Spain and Mexico as part of an ultimately successful quest to become bilingual. Adams finished up her education with a teaching certificate from Metropolitan State College; by the time she graduated, she knew she wanted to concentrate on bilingual elementary-school education. In the fall of 1989, after a year of substitute teaching and parking cars at a downtown hotel, Adams began her first real assignment at Barnum Elementary School.
"With all of her skills, she could have gone to a ritzy school," says Jenny Sullivan, mother of two Barnum students. "She chose instead to go to Barnum, and she was wonderful."
Maybe Barnum wasn't ritzy, but it quickly became home to Hillary Adams. She'd gotten off to a rough start--as part of a team of four young bilingual teachers, she'd unknowingly supplanted several longtime Barnum teachers, and their friends resented it--but she toughed it out. "Hillary was strong, and she survived," remembers Wright, also a new teacher that year.