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The Leap

Teddy's room.  

Mostly the diagnosis spurred Teddy to conquer the now-apparent symptoms. After all, he transformed himself from the awkward athlete he had been as a child to the formidable opponent he became in adolescence through willpower and a savvy focus on those sports—wrestling, football, track and field—that took advantage of his brute strength rather than his iffy coordination. He would do the same with Asperger’s: “wrestle his problems to the ground with logic,” Andrew Puschel says. If he didn’t know what to discuss with girls on a date, he’d ask his mother for ideas. If he had trouble organizing himself for a writing assignment, he would follow his tutors’ advice and try breathing for a moment before speaking his thoughts aloud. And though he declined to renew his membership in a social-skills group for teens with Asperger’s despite Ava Seave’s bribe of $100 per session, he took his medications—a standard regimen of low-dose risperidone and citalopram—diligently. Traces of the latter were found in his blood when he died.

Despite or perhaps because of its reputation as a high-pressure, achieve-or-else institution, Dalton embraced and supported Teddy. He may have had issues but he was some sort of genius, certainly headed for a prestigious college. (He maintained an A/A- average; his PSAT scores were nearly perfect.) Teachers loved him, even when he corrected them. “Dalton truly lived up to its promise and my expectations,” Carla says. “They molded the school experience to Teddy’s needs, and they gave him a chance to follow his passions.” Doing so often meant finessing difficulties associated with his condition by creating independent studies and skewing the curriculum toward his strengths. As recommended when he received his diagnosis, Dalton gave him extra time and a laptop computer to use on tests in some subjects. That these accommodations eventually became, in a way, accomplices cannot be blamed on the school.

It was Teddy who made the typical, paltry teenager’s mistake that led to disaster. On February 17, he found himself unprepared for a Latin test the next day. Partly this was because of his usual procrastination. And partly it was because he had been sick the previous week with a bug bad enough to keep him home longer than he’d ever been absent before. By the long Presidents’ Day weekend, he was feeling better; on Monday, he and Stephen Puschel had gone on a college visit to Columbia. But now it was Tuesday night, and Cicero loomed.

What Teddy didn’t know while taking the test is that the school’s technology department was monitoring his laptop remotely.

E-mails and texts to friends show that he was awake most of that night, catching up not only on the Latin but on the other subjects he’d missed as well. It must have been during these exhausted hours that he devised his plan. At any rate, when his alarm rang (or when it shook his bed—an alarm for the hearing-impaired was the only one strong enough to wake him), he proceeded to school and immediately checked out the laptop he was permitted to use on exams. This was unusual; even though the Latin exam would begin early for him, almost two hours remained before it started.

The teacher would later explain that translating Cicero’s complex language was not a matter of the straightforward application of memorized vocabulary and grammar rules, but required a degree of inference that would certainly prove difficult for anyone—especially Teddy—who wasn’t in class when the material had been taught. Teddy was good at Latin but smart enough to know that he might well fail. And so, worn out and apparently unable to imagine other options, he cheated by accessing files he must have loaded onto the laptop earlier that morning.

What he did not know is that the teacher, suspecting something, had asked members of the technology department to monitor Teddy’s laptop remotely. They watched as he cut and pasted elements of the translation. They informed the teacher, who allowed Teddy to finish. Only when Teddy was ready to print the test did the teacher indicate that something was amiss: Unusually, he asked Teddy to turn in the laptop. It was about 10:30 a.m.

The other students, who started the test after Teddy, continued to work. Some saw him become agitated, leaving and then barging back into the room repeatedly, wanting to talk to the teacher. The teacher suggested they meet later in the day, but Teddy begged to talk sooner and the teacher agreed to do so at the end of class. The content of that conversation, which began around 10:55, will never fully be known. Certainly Teddy learned that several people, including administrators, had witnessed his cheating. The teacher concluded by telling Teddy that this might be a tough couple of weeks but they would get through it together.

Teddy left the room, had a brief exchange with an acquaintance in the cafeteria (“What’s up?” “I’m hungry”), and then headed upstairs. In the eleventh-floor dance studio, where he had often practiced the hip-hop moves that made him a hit at bar mitzvahs during seventh grade, he chatted with a dance teacher, who then went into her office, thinking nothing was wrong. Teddy put down his jacket and backpack. He must have climbed atop a radiator and used the stacked ballet bars above it as a kind of ladder. (One broke.) A safety device prevented the bottom sash of the window from opening more than a few inches, but the top sash lowered all the way.

It was eleven o’clock, no more than five minutes since the idea, if you can call it an idea, took shape. Still, that was five minutes in which anything might have broken the chain. The teacher might have mentioned how minor the punishment for a “first offense” of cheating was: an F on the test and a one-year removal from leadership positions in extracurricular activities. Someone might have escorted Teddy to a staff member’s office, as is protocol at some other schools, instead of leaving him to stew on his own. A friend might have recognized his distress and told him, as his tutors often did, to breathe.

To say these were all possible is not to say anyone is to blame. Teddy’s—and the school’s—success at integrating his Asperger’s symptoms would have made it hard to see how disordered his thoughts had become. The blow to his reputation must have seemed, in the moment, insuperable. All those lectures he’d given Clay about honesty and integrity, Clay who adored and admired him—was he a hypocrite? All the ways he’d made himself into a model scholar-athlete, his “disability” be damned; all his college hopes: Had he, in one bout with Cicero, ruined everything forever?

Neighbors on East 89th heard a thud. Kids taking a math test heard a huge boom, like a truck backfiring, and people screaming. The fourth-graders at recess were quickly shepherded inside. Though no one at first seemed to know who it was that had landed, slumped in a seated position, on the sidewalk, word that something terrible had happened spread quickly—even, by text, to other schools. Dalton went into a kind of shock mode. Some kids sat on the floor crying. Others, on instruction from administrators, taped newspapers over the windows. They tried not to look at the view they were obscuring.

How someone from Dalton called to say there had been an accident and Carla should come right away; how she was then allowed to happen upon the tarp-covered body alone; how she had to ask, “Is that Teddy?” and “Is he dead?”—these are things she won’t talk about. Nor will Dalton, whose administrators, citing privacy concerns, declined to comment beyond saying that “the Dalton community continues to honor the memory of Teddy Graubard.” (Last week, the athletic department paid tribute to him at the annual sports-awards dinner.)

To be fair, school officials were dealing with a traumatic and unprecedented emergency involving a boy they, too, loved. But Ava Seave, who arrived a few minutes later to find Carla wailing in grief, still cannot believe how “tone-deaf” the school’s response was. Though someone at Dalton familiar with the events says her recollection isn’t correct, Seave insists that she and Carla were sent, unescorted, past Teddy’s body, blood everywhere, a foot sticking out from the tarp, with a sock but no shoe—“Can’t someone cover his foot!” Carla screamed—past the television cameras and police barriers, to walk the two blocks to the gym to tell Clay what had happened.

Because he had been taken from gym class, Clay thought at first that he was in trouble. “What did I do?” he cried when he saw his mother. When told he had done nothing, he wondered if she had come to tell him that she was terribly sick. The real news was delivered behind a closed office door, through which Seave heard only the boy’s sobs and screams.

A 12-year-old processes tragedy in small packets, and perhaps it’s best that way. At one point Clay protested that Teddy had promised to teach him Java that weekend, as if this meant he couldn’t really be dead. At another, as Seave settled him into a cab to take him to her apartment that afternoon, he asked if they might drive by the television cameras. Seave explained that, quite the opposite, he had to avoid all media that might come after him. When he asked what to do if someone “tried to interview” him, Seave told him to say, “Fuck you, you asshole!”