Baltimore teacher triumphs after former student kills her son

Teacher whose son was murdered by former kindergarten student, welcomes new group of kindergartners this year

August 28, 2010|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Theresa Waddell will never forget the bright boy with troubled eyes who sat in her kindergarten class during her first year as a teacher. She drilled home the message that he could grow to become anything he wanted.

He would grow to murder her son.

On Monday, Waddell, 59, will stand before a kindergarten class for the first time since her son was killed.

In the intervening years, she had continued to teach, but not the very youngest. She struggled with grief, sometimes crying in a classroom corner before returning to the front to use her pain as a teachable moment.

Now, finally, she has battled back, her colleagues say, recovering the passion and enthusiasm of a rookie, tempered with a veteran's knowledge of the tragic paths young lives can follow despite the efforts of attentive adults.

Waddell is excited, she said, to face the littlest emerging minds and help them flourish.

"Now's the time to get them," she said last week as she excitedly bounced around her new classroom at George Washington Elementary School in Baltimore, sporadically breaking into song about everything from books to geography as she prepared for the first day of school. "You can shape them, mold them, and protect them."

Not everyone, however, can be protected by teachers. Zachary James wasn't.

In 1995, Zachary was a disturbed kindergartner at Callaway Elementary School who was hard to reach, recalls Waddell. He was rumored to have slept on porches, neglected by his family.

The teacher showered the boy and his classmates with praise, calling them "smart cookies." He watched in awe, she said, as she stretched a rubber band to its limits to show her pupils how much their brains would grow over the next few months.

Soon enough, the year was over. Their lives diverged. Zachary moved to the next grade. Waddell got a new group of students.

In September 2006, Waddell was preparing lesson plans when she got a call. Her son, Michael Freeman, a 32-year-old father of two who traveled the country for restoration work in old buildings, including Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre, had been gunned down on the front porch of his Park Heights home. Police called it a botched robbery.

A few days after the killer was caught, a cafeteria manager at Callaway reached out and started the fateful sentence: "Theresa, do you remember that little boy … "

Police had charged Zachary James with the crime.

When Waddell next saw James at a court hearing in 2007, he was no longer a little boy. But he had the same bleak look in his eyes as in kindergarten.

She listened as witnesses and defense attorneys described him as a good kid gone bad, wise beyond his years.

Waddell addressed the courtroom during a victim impact statement. She could not deny that the youth had potential. "I know he's smart, your honor," she said. "I taught him."

James was sentenced to 60 years in prison for the murder of Freeman and another man he had killed in July 2006. He offered no explanation for the crimes and no apology to his former teacher.

Waddell returned to the classroom with her emotions in conflict: Two lives she cherished had been ended.

"When I went back, I was a little mad at my little African-American boys, and that hurt me," Waddell said. "But the only thing that helped me get through was coming to work and being around my children."

A counselor advised her that such feelings were normal.

"The little boy who murdered my son — it's in my nature to forgive him," she said. "He came from a rough background. I feel bad for him, too. If things had been different for him, it would have been a different story."

Waddell does not feel that she failed her student. She still believes wholeheartedly that "children don't aspire to be bad — it's just that there are so many social ills."

Waddell's return to kindergarten brings her back to why she began teaching. She likens kindergarten to the foundation of a house.

She came to teaching later in life, having left her chemistry studies at the University of North Carolina to marry and raise a family. She got a teaching degree from Sojourner-Douglass College in Baltimore and has taught at nearly every grade at Callaway and Cross Country elementaries, including gifted-and-talented classes.

Her expectations are extraordinarily high, colleagues say, and the number of students who meet them is enviable.

Family and friends describe her as a natural-born educator, bustling with energy. She will jump on desks to shock students to attention and can turn an accidental paper cut into a biology lesson and a rap song into a history discussion. She considers a child reading a book a "spiritual gift."

Recently, Kendra Freeman visited her mother's home, barely recognizing it because the walls were covered with construction paper that Waddell had used to teach summer lessons to neighborhood kids.

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