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LaGuardia High School Mourns 'Legendary' Slain Teacher Karyn Kay

Karyn Kay.
Karyn Kay.
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By Leslie Albrecht and Jill Colvin

DNAinfo Staff

UPPER WEST SIDE — Grief counselors will be stationed at LaGuardia High School beginning next week to help stunned students cope with the loss of beloved teacher Karyn Kay, who was allegedly beaten to death by her son, the school's parent association announced.

Kay, 63, an English teacher and guidance counselor, was allegedly murdered by son Henry Wachtel, 19, Tuesday morning inside their West 55th Street apartment, police said. Wachtel was arraigned on second degree murder charges Wednesday afternoon.

Kay's brutal death sent shockwaves through the close-knit LaGuardia community, many of whom are well-known performers and artists. Alumni of the school, which inspired the film and TV series "Fame," include actors Jennifer Aniston and Robert De Niro, singer Suzanne Vega and fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi.

Henry Wachtel in the back of a police car after being led from the Midtown North Precinct on Tues., April 10, 2012.
Henry Wachtel in the back of a police car after being led from the Midtown North Precinct on Tues., April 10, 2012.
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DNAinfo/Jefferson Siegel

Among the lives Kay touched was celebrated author Jonathan Lethem, who "adored" her, according to Barbara Pollard, the former chair of LaGuardia's English department, who hired Kay and worked alongside her for years.

"People are going to be very badly shook up," she said. "I couldn't even speak when I first found out. She was very special."

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said he would be on hand at the school Monday to personally greet students.

"They suffered a tragic loss," Walcott said. "She was just a high-quality teacher and they really liked her energetic style. [She] really connected with students and the students connected to her."

LaGuardia principal Kim Bruno will be in Kay's classroom on Monday to speak directly with her students, and the school's leadership team will meet to discuss memorial plans, according to an email from the parent association.

"As fellow parents we encourage you to speak with your child about this and feel out their emotional state so as not to leave them to deal with this situation on their own," parent leaders said in the email.

Kay taught creative writing classes, exposing students to challenging works like Albert Camus' "The Stranger" and Tim O'Brien's Vietnam War novel "The Things They Carried." In her film class, she showed students classics.

"Ms. Kay's class is why 'La Jetee' is my fave film, & how I first saw Chinatown, 400 Blows & Les Enfants du Paradis," wrote @radiomorillo on Twitter.

But Kay's impact went far beyond the books and movies she used to teach her kids, students said.

She was best remembered for her warmth, patience and passion. In heartfelt remembrances on Facebook and Twitter, students spoke of a talented educator who had a lasting influence on their lives. Many used the word "love" to describe their feelings for the allegedly slain teacher.

Rachel Roth, a 1987 LaGuardia graduate, said almuni were reeling from the news of Kay's death. Many in Roth's class had kept in touch with Kay and were looking forward to seeing her at the upcoming 20th reunion.

"She was really the best teacher I've ever had," Roth said. "She was a supportive teacher, but she would also want to know what else was going on in your life besides school work. She would go further to find out what was happening in terms of teenage angst."

Roth is now a teacher herself and said she was inspired to become an educator in part by her experiences with Kay.

Chris Filipowski, another former student, said Kay attained the "legendary aura" usually reserved for drama or art teachers at LaGuardia, where students are focused on training for careers in the arts.

"It's rare that a teacher who taught academics would have this kind of impact at LaGuardia," Filipowski said. "But she was without a doubt a great teacher and a very, very warm person. The effect she had was profound."

Even students who clashed with Kay had positive things to say about her.

"No Matter how much trouble we gave each other last year in British Lit, At the end of almost every class we had, you would tell me how intelligent & insightful I really am," wrote a LaGuardia student in a comment about Kay's death posted on DNAinfo.

Peter Frishauf, a LaGuardia alum who now sits on the school's Alumni & Friends board, said Kay was "completely tireless" when it came to helping students.

"It's really awful," Frishauf said of Kay's death. "She was one of those people who whenever you needed her, she would have been there. She was full of energy — kind of like your dream teacher in some ways."

Frishauf said he knew little about Kay's private life, in part because she kept her focus squarely on her students.

But others who knew Kay said her son was an ongoing source of concern.

Edmee Cherdieu D'Alexis, co-owner of the Z Club NY dance studio where Kay regularly attended Zumba classes, said she was a joyful, energetic person who was always running around, but that worries about her son preyed on her.

Cherdieu D'Alexis said Kay was frequently forced to call 911 when Wachtel had seizures.

"She was always really worried [about Wachtel]," Cherdieu D'Alexis said. "You could feel there was something there that was heavy on her. She wanted to come to events, but she would say, 'I have to make sure my son was OK.'"