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Class Dismissed

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

Meanwhile, Wright called on Judith Chavez and asked if she could speak with the Barnum teachers about Hillary. Chavez gave her permission, Wright says, but asked her to wait until the DPS crisis team arrived. When teachers saw Wright in the building, though, they started coming up to talk to her. That angered Chavez, Wright says. "She called me into her office," Wright recalls. "She said, 'I want you to know that if you say anything about me, I can sue you for libel.'" Wright left in tears, but not before she handed over a six-page description of the events leading up to Hillary Adams's death.

The crisis team read aloud some excerpts from Wright's letter. "Then they told us each to share our innermost and deepest feelings, in front of Mrs. Chavez," one teacher remembers. "But of course, nobody could."

"I would have never guessed it could happen," Chavez says of Adams's death. "As far as the way I handled it, I had just lost my mother. I was still going through my own grieving. As far as the staff, I did involve the crisis team. I also invited our school psychiatrist to meet with the staff. As far as informing the community...we didn't have a lot of details."
So instead Chavez sent a memo home with students. It began with this: Dear Parents, It is with sadness and regret that I have to inform you of the death of Ms. Hillary Adams, who taught at Barnum for five years. While there might be rumors about the cause of death, all that has been confirmed is that she passed away..."

Over 300 people came to Evergreen for Hillary Adams's funeral. Eighteen substitutes were found so that all of her Barnum friends could be there; Judith Chavez stayed away. Eleven-year-old Ian Sullivan, whose sister Mattie had been in Adams's class, surprised everyone when he walked to the front of the chapel to speak. By the time he had finished seven brief sentences, everyone was crying.

And yet, says Pat Adams, "it was a beautiful day. Nobody wanted it to end. It was a day of unconditional love, and you don't get to experience that often. Even up on the hill where we buried her, in such a deluge of rain and hail, people were holding each other's umbrellas, talking about Hillary." Much of the talk, of course, centered on teaching. "That's almost all they talked about," says Reithman, "that she was a natural teacher, that she was born to do it. Sometimes I even think they may have talked almost too much about it. It may," he decides, "have been too much of her life.

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