Peter Haley Staff Photographer
Peter Haley Staff Photographer

Karen Peterson

Columnist’s own life story helped him understand Klara’s

October 15, 2016 05:04 PM

Columnist Matt Driscoll was shaken when he walked into my office that day in June.

Remember the young Tacoma teacher he’d written about a few months ago, he asked? The one who had been fired for being drunk in her classroom?

She was dead, Driscoll said. Klara Bowman had killed herself.

She was gone.

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He was floored.

He and his editor, along with our education reporter, Debbie Cafazzo, discussed whether we should write about her death.

Driscoll had become attached to Bowman’s story when it first broke in March.

She was a kindergarten teacher who had worked for the Tacoma School District since 2008. She lost her job after one of her students reported to the principal’s office that something was wrong with the teacher. The assistant principal found Bowman apparently intoxicated and escorted her out.

A later report said her blood-alcohol content was five times the legal limit and that empty alcohol containers were found in her classroom.

A previous incident involving alcohol, in 2011, had resulted in a last-chance agreement between Bowman and the district. The district followed through and fired her.

Cafazzo wrote a short story at the time, sticking to the facts of this newsworthy matter. We saw no need to hype the story like the broadcast outlets who ran Bowman’s photo, described how she staggered out of her classroom and staked out her house in University Place.

The drunken-teacher story, complete with sordid details, spread over social media and quickly found its way across the country.

Some people were mad at the district for allowing Bowman to continue teaching after the first incident.

Parents fretted about the children who were left in her care. One commented: “i would hope she wouldnt he(sic) hired back. what if she accidentally hurts a child. I sure am glad my kids attend a different school.”

Others simply poked directly at Bowman.

“It's all fun and games until you get caught drinking on the job,” one commented.

“Ah yes!,” wrote another, “Yet another immature, selfish, idiotic, and irresponsible millennial.”

And this: “Lol but has anyone had to watch 30 kindergarteners .... Girl needed that drink ...”

Driscoll, however, saw more. He saw a young woman struggling with a drinking problem.

He wrote a column about Bowman that ran March 10, revealing he was in kindergarten himself when he began to understand what alcohol could do to a person and a family. His own dad was an alcoholic.

Driscoll thought sharing that experience, which he hadn’t done before publicly, would allow him to connect with others touched by alcoholism. He wanted to share a different perspective.

“Today, we’re pointing and laughing at a 32-year-old woman obviously fighting for her life,” he wrote, “joking about her lack of judgment and willpower in the face of a terrible disease.”

Reaction to his column took a softer tone.

“It was really something,” Driscoll told me. “I’ve never gotten more emails. Someone even sent me flowers.”

One reader wrote: “Not to dismiss for a moment the justifiable anger of parents (and others), this is a woman whose struggle simply can’t be understood by anyone who hasn’t had direct exposure to addiction and the grip it has on people, or who hasn’t experienced complete loss of control over his or her life.”

Three months later, however, Driscoll’s words proved horrifically prophetic. Bowman, had indeed, been fighting for her life.

Driscoll came to work after a day off and had a voicemail from someone telling him Bowman had killed herself.

“It was like a punch in the gut,” he said.

The calls and emails kept coming to him from the teacher’s colleagues and friends, time and again for a month. They reached out because Driscoll had been the one person who publicly looked beyond the drunken-teacher headline.

We debated on that June day whether to write about Bowman’s suicide. As a rule, we don’t cover suicides unless they happen in a public place or involve a news maker, which Bowman had been.

Because Bowman no longer was working as a teacher, however, we decided that reporting the news did not outweigh the further pain a story would cause her loved ones. We left it alone. No one else covered it, either.

But the story haunted Driscoll.

In July, he reached out to Bowman’s parents. He wanted to tell them about all the people who had shared with him wonderful stories about their daughter. And yes, he wanted to tell them why he thought her full story was an important one to tell.

Driscoll emailed Bowman’s father, Tom: “I told him, ‘This will be the only time I’ll email to ask about this. If I never hear from you, I’ll understand. I’m sorry for your pain.’ ”

For weeks he heard nothing.

Then he got an email from Robin Einerson, Bowman’s mother. She remembered Driscoll’s column, she said. She and Klara had talked about it. She gave Driscoll permission to write about her daughter’s death.

But Driscoll wanted more. He wanted to write about it from the couple’s perspective.

“What’s powerful is your voice as parents,” he told them. He asked if he could come meet with them in Spokane.

The couple agreed, believing their story might somehow help others.

We put it on the front page today for the same reason.

It’s an important story.

It shows the abject pain of a family reeling from the loss of two daughters, a family that tried for years to cope with the terrible disease of alcoholism, a family publicly shamed on social media, a family left behind after a daughter took her own life.

It also shows two heartbroken but proud parents who want to share with the world the complete Klara Bowman story, the story of the wonderful, caring teacher and daughter she was, even as she struggled to right her own ship.

What does Driscoll want readers to take away from the story?

“I just want them to see Klara Bowman as a person,” he said.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434, @TNTkpeterson