Class Dismissed

Barnum Elementary struggles to understand Hillary Adams's last lesson.

When Smith's position was eliminated from Barnum's budget last spring, he was ready to move on. He didn't go quietly, however. He's filed two official grievances against Chavez. And at his final meeting with her, he offered some unofficial comments. "She kept telling us she was 'here for the children,' and finally I challenged her, a little heatedly, I admit," he says. "I said, 'Are you saying I am not here for the children?' And she backed down a little after that." Chavez says she wasn't aware of any dissatisfaction at the school until after Adams's death, but concedes that "it was a difficult year. I was a new principal, and because Hillary was an advocate for teachers and children, she was very vocal."

Especially at CDM meetings. "She said she was being overridden a lot, and it started to get to her," Adams' sister remembers. And the CDM's toughest task--cutting the budget--was still to come.

Adams knew that whatever decision the committee made would directly affect Sue Doyle, a fellow first-grade teacher who'd come to Barnum on a one-year assignment and hoped to be hired on permanently. Ironically, Doyle had had some difficulty being accepted by the Barnum teachers; she knew Chavez personally, and was seen as her friend and confidante. As the end of the school year drew near, however, Adams and other teachers realized they'd come to like Doyle as well as respect her teaching ability.

According to Doyle herself, the CDM worked long hours trying to devise a way to keep her in the budget. Finally it settled on two options--only one of which included Doyle--and put them to the entire teaching staff for a vote. On a Friday, the teachers voted to keep Doyle. The next Monday, Jerry Smith recalls, "Judy announced that we had run over her like a freight train and that she wasn't about to let it happen again. Then she vetoed our decision, and Sue was out."

"We were trying to be fair," says another teacher. "We had met for hours and voted--and then Judy told us she was embarrassed and humiliated by what we had done."
Doyle, who had indeed once counted Chavez among her friends, was devastated--so much so that she went to Chavez's office. "And Judy told me that she had heard I was saying negative things about her, and that she was tired of the rumors," Doyle recalls. "Then she told me my expectations for my class were too high, anyway. And she said no, I would not be coming back next year."

"It's still an issue today," Chavez admits. "Some of the teachers were under the impression that they were empowered to make all the decisions, but I don't think the message came out clear that the principal does have the last word."

Combing Adams's last months for clues is a singularly depressing task, but those who were close to her are still doing it. Yes, they agree, Hillary had a bad year at school, as they all did. But only Adams became obsessed with the changes at Barnum--and with its principal.

"All of a sudden she felt a lot of animosity," friend Lisa Wright remembers. "Judy Chavez had come in to evaluate her class. I don't know the details, except that Hillary was upset about it, and she felt like Judy didn't think she was a good teacher. I know she had several conflicts with Judy, and after each one she got closer to thinking she was just the worst teacher and not doing anything right."
"Looking back," says Smith, "there were signs we should have heeded. She was always the last to leave Bob's, and she was drinking plenty, although Lord knows I drank tons of beer myself that year. She may have had an eating disorder. She never completely expressed herself to anyone, even though we could tell she was upset."
A persistent sinus infection added to Adams' woes. After she had sinus surgery in April, Adams began a frantic search for a roommate. If she didn't find one, she told friends, she'd be unable to pay the rent. Once, when Chavez refused to let her take a call at school from a potential roommate, she became hysterical.

Wendy and her mother could only recall one other time when they'd seen Hillary so upset: shortly after she'd been sexually assaulted at college. "It was a terrible thing," her mother says, "and sometimes she did get depressed when that came up. But she stayed in school, her GPA was high, and she seemed to be handling it."

But in the spring of 1993, Hillary Adams was not handling it. When she announced her plans to leave Barnum, her family was relieved. Adams received job offers from three other DPS schools, but leaving her Barnum kids never seemed to sit right, in part because the other positions weren't bilingual.

"Hillary was a very good bilingual teacher," says Reithman, "and she really didn't want to change schools. She told me the only reason she did it was because of the principal." Chavez disagrees. "Adams was a very outstanding bilingual teacher, very caring, very professional, very dedicated," she says. "I had very high regard for Hillary. She and I had a very good working relationship."
In fact, Chavez adds, Adams thought enough of her to give her a parting present: the book La Reina de las Nieves, a Spanish translation of the Hans Christian Anderson story of the Snow Queen. The Queen reminded her of Chavez, Adams told the principal.

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