Excerpt from Death at Hilliard High
by Carole B. Shmurak
It all started with a phone call, a simple, innocent phone call. But I should have learned by then that when my friend Elaine Dodgson called, nothing was ever simple. And seldom innocent.
“Susan, I need a small favor,” she began in her cheerful, melodious voice — a voice that had won her several major roles in off-Broadway shows two decades ago.
“Sure,” I replied with more certainty than I felt. I stared out of my office window, thinking of some of the favors Elaine had asked for in the past. Helping her return a book she’d stolen from her former headmistress and hiring a private detective to tail her current boyfriend were the ones that came to mind.
“Do you remember Shauna Thompson?”
I remembered her immediately. Shauna had been a student of Elaine’s at Wintonbury Academy for Girls, one of the few African-American girls at the school. Six feet tall with blazing eyes and an infectious grin, Shauna was a formidable presence even as a sixteen year old.
“Of course,” I said. “She was one of your best drama students.”
“And she helped you catch a murderer,” Elaine reminded me.
I didn’t need the reminder. “What’s Shauna doing now?” I asked. “Is she in college?”
“Just graduated from Yale,” Elaine replied. “And teaching English at Hilliard High School.”
“Yale and Hilliard. That’s a pretty impressive résumé.”
“Well, you may remember that’s she’s quite an impressive young woman. But she’s run into some problems at Hilliard and I thought you might help her.”
“Problems?” I repeated. “Problems with her teaching?”
“But what sort of problems then? And why do you think I might help her?”
“I think it would be best if Shauna explained it to you herself. Will you be home tonight? And can she give you a call?”
“Sure,” I said, my curiosity now roused. “I’d love to hear from her.”
Our mission is to educate students for active membership in a complex world. We teach them to use their minds well so they may become informed and honest participants in the community and in a democratic society.
– from the Mission Statement of Hilliard High School, Hilliard Connecticut
The town of Hilliard, once a sleepy little farming village, boasted more new million-dollar homes than any of the other upscale suburbs of Hartford. Its high school was always at the top of the state rankings, and, in a state where a school district’s standardized test scores translated into real estate values, the citizens of Hilliard meant to keep it that way.
I’d been to Hilliard High once or twice over the past eight years when I’d visited student teachers working there, but now, as I drove into its parking lot, I took a fresh look. The old wing of the school, a prime example of schoolhouse gothic with its pointed arches and soaring spires, had been built, according to its cornerstone, in 1920. The new wing, a low-slung structure of glass and brick, was clearly a product of the last baby boomlet. No attempt had been made by the architect to blend the two discordant elements. Maybe, I thought, it was a reflection of how the Hilliard old-timers felt about the upwardly mobile newcomers who had surged into their valley town in the last decade.
I parked my little Toyota in the visitors’ lot and immediately wished I’d taken it to the carwash over the weekend. On one side of it, a Mercedes and a BMW gleamed in the sunlight. On the other, three gigantic SUVs glistened — visiting parent volunteers, I assumed.
I hurried into the main office and was greeted by a smiling secretary.
“Oh, Ms. Thompson is expecting you,” she said when I introduced myself. “Just sign the visitors’ book and you can go right to her classroom. It’s room 208, just up that stairway and make a right. You’ll see it. First period’s almost over, so wait till the bell rings before you go in.”
I did as I was told, and I soon found myself outside room 208. Peering through the closed glass door, I saw Shauna in front of her class. She was a tall woman with broad shoulders, and she moved with grace as she paced back and forth, gesturing as she spoke to her class. The bell rang, and twenty adolescents burst from the room. When the last one had left, I entered.
“Dr. Lombardi! Hey, thanks for coming. Those were my freshmen who just left. My juniors will be here in a minute or two.” She gave me a warm smile. “I really like my juniors — you’ll see how smart they are.”
“Good to see you, Shauna,” I replied. “Before they get here, tell me: is there anything special you want me to focus on?”
“Not really. I want your unbiased eye. Just sit back here and see if you spot anything strange, okay? After this class, I’ve got a free period and I’ll explain more then.”
Students started to trickle in and I took the seat in the back of the room that Shauna had indicated. I watched carefully as the students entered: boys in loose-fitting tee shirts, khakis and expensive running shoes, girls in tee shirts and jeans, with long straight hair falling to their shoulders and flip-flops on their feet. All of them were slim and smiling, with perfect complexions; a few still had braces on their teeth.
Shauna introduced me to the class and started quickly by distributing photocopies of a poem. The students, obviously well-trained even this early in the year, got into groups to discuss the poem and answer the questions that Shauna had written on the whiteboard. The room was filled with adolescent chatter and giggling, and I wandered around, listening in on the conversations.
“It’s about death,” one of the girls said. “They’re always about death.” She had dark brown hair that she kept pushing out of her eyes.
“No, I don’t think so,” responded another, a petite girl with white-blond hair and dark blue eyes fringed with white lashes.
Across the room, I saw one boy get so excited about what he was saying that he jumped out of his chair.
“That’s gross!” exclaimed one of the girls in his group.
Shauna hurried over to them and asked a few questions. The boy sat down again, and the conversation continued.
She approached a group of four boys. I noticed that one of the boys, small for his age and wearing a Red Sox
baseball cap, was looking around, uninvolved, and playing with his pen.
“What’s your evidence for that?” she asked, pointing at something one of the boys had written in his notebook. Her question caught the attention of the distracted boy and he drew closer to the others in the group. After a few moments, she moved on.
“Okay, guys,” Shauna said about twenty minutes later. “You have just a few more minutes. Put a star next to the three best things you have to say about the poem.”
The rest of the class was spent with students explaining their ideas and Shauna jotting them on the board. There was some agreement between groups but much discussion of their different interpretations. When class was over, the students gathered up their books and zoomed out the door.
“So what did you think?” asked Shauna.
“Good group,” I said. “You handle them like a pro.”
“Thanks,” she said, looking pleased. “Now walk around the room and see if you notice anything strange.”
“Strange?” I repeated.
I strolled around the room, gazing at movie posters and posters of women writers. I scanned the computers at the side of the room and the bookshelves in the back.
“Oh, that’s funny,” I said. “All the books on your shelves are upside down.”
“Look again,” she suggested.
I looked. “Hmmm. There are a few right side up. Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, James Baldwin…”
“Do you think someone is trying to tell me something?” she asked.