Class Dismissed

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

Chavez appears to have considered that a compliment, although it's difficult to see why. Just a glance at the book's illustrations of sad children adrift in a frozen world might have made her wonder. And the story itself is anything but flattering. In it, a small boy is taken prisoner by the Snow Queen, a beautiful woman in white furs whose lips are "colder than ice" and whose kiss "penetrates almost to his heart, almost freezing it solid." A few of these scary kisses make the boy forget all about the little girl who loves him back home, and he rides off to Lapland to live in the Queen's icy castle. "I'm not going to kiss you again," the Queen says, as they drive away. "Another of my kisses would kill you."

The girl risks her life to follow the boy, and eventually finds him frozen almost black, playing with shards of ice as if they were a jigsaw puzzle and trying to remember how to talk--all because the Queen's kisses "had robbed him of all sensation, and his heart was like a lump of ice." Using the power of love--the only power that works against the Snow Queen--she thaws his heart and brings him home, where they "forget forever the nightmares of the desolate grandeur of the far-off palace of the Snow Queen." By summer it seemed that Hillary Adams's life was warming up. Her sister introduced her to a man, Greg Baldwin, and their time together was "incredibly fun," Wendy says. (Baldwin declined to be interviewed for this story.) The last time Reithman saw Adams, he went to Central City with her and Baldwin, and they took in the opera and more than a few slot machines. Reithman says he thought they were a great couple; he was happy--and relieved--for Hillary. Her personal life seemed to be going well, but Adams still couldn't decide which job offer to accept. In fact, her reason seemed to crumble whenever the subject of school came up. "She had never questioned her ability to teach before," Wendy says. "But she kept saying, 'I just can't do it.'"

Wright heard the same thing whenever she saw Adams, which was often: Wright's wedding was scheduled for the end of summer, and Adams was to be a bridesmaid. "Finally," Wright recalls, "I said, 'Hillary, you don't have to teach. There are a million other things you could do.' But she said, 'No, teaching is the only thing I can do. If I can't teach, I've failed.'"

In August, two weeks before the school year began, Adams finally accepted the offer at Cheltenham Elementary School. She became increasingly anxious as the first day of work approached, friends remember. She developed another sinus infection, and once again worried about getting a roommate. She showed up for teachers' orientation, but left in such a state of agitation that she had to skip the first two days of school, her sister says. On the third day, she returned to Cheltenham and fainted during lunch. She was revived by fellow teachers, only to faint again. Adams was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital and admitted to the psychiatric ward for a day of observation. Her mother, who drove west from her home in Burlington to pick up Hillary, learned that her daughter had been given anti-anxiety medication, and that traces of amphetamines had been found in her bloodstream, "which really upset Hillary," she recalls. "She said she hadn't done any kind of drugs at all since college, and the doctors thought it might be the sinus pills."

Pat Adams spent the next few days with Hillary, who caught up on lost sleep and had long, cathartic talks with her mother when she was awake. After three days, Pat went home, satisfied that her daughter was on the mend. Adams went up to Evergreen to see her sister and boyfriend.

"All her anxieties were equal--the moving, the teaching, her animals," Wendy says. "I told her her animals could stay with us, that we'd help her move. I told her I'd go with her to her new teaching job. I thought we had this all taken care of."
Before Hillary left to spend the night at Baldwin's, she agreed to a thrift-shopping expedition with her sister the next day. But when Wendy came to pick her up, Hillary was gone. Her car, purse and jacket were all there--but she was missing. So was Baldwin's .44 magnum. The Jefferson County Sheriff's office soon arrived with bloodhounds, Lisa Wright came up from Colorado Springs to make and distribute hundreds of fliers, and Wendy and her fiance searched the town for clues. Late the next afternoon, Baldwin walked across the street, no more than a few hundred yards from where the dogs had been, and found Hillary Adams. She had sat down against a tree and shot herself in the head.

Numb with grief, Hillary's family went about the business of planning her funeral. Shopping for a coffin was particularly surreal. Most of the family favored cremation, but they didn't know Hillary's wishes. Meanwhile, they were struck by how hard it was to find (or afford) a simple, unadorned pine box. Finally, Wendy's carpenter fiance offered to make one. "And really," Pat Adams reflects, "it was a work of art."

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