ROANOKE, Va. -- The two-lane bridge that Ron Mayfield Jr. came to on the morning of his death stands almost 200 feet above the flowing waters where his father took him fishing as a boy and where, years later, he spent hours with his own son, casting for catfish and perch.
He made two final calls on his cellphone, gasping out a farewell to his wife and dialing 911 without saying a word. Then he lay the phone beside the road and straddled the knee-high metal bridge railing.
At an hour when the school day was just getting started 6 miles away at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, Mayfield leaned sideways and let go, falling into the river.
The note he left tucked in the Bible, on the front seat of the car he left properly parked in the rest area by the bridge, began this way:
"I am so sorry for what I have done, but there is no way I could carry on, absolutely no way."
The apology was for taking his own life. He had no need to apologize for what drove him to his death, because Mayfield knew it was untrue.
A student at Woodrow Wilson told authorities that he had been assaulted by Mayfield, 55, who taught English to nonnative speakers. Mayfield denied it, but his word, his reputation, and his spotless record were not enough. He had been suspended, and police were called in to investigate.
What Mayfield did not know as he mounted the bridge that morning was that police had cleared him of wrongdoing.
No national statistics are kept on the number of false accusations students make against their teachers, but specialists have said the evolving culture of the classroom has caused the number of reports of abusive teachers to increase in the past 15 years. A study in Britain found that 1,782 allegations of abuse by teachers resulted in 96 prosecutions.
"There is a culture now where students know how to get rid of a teacher, they know how to get a teacher removed from a classroom," said Greg Lawler, general counsel for the Colorado Education Association. When he took the education association job 17 years ago, Lawler said, he spent 30 percent of his time defending teachers accused of criminal acts. Accusations have increased so dramatically that he and another lawyer now work full time defending teachers, he said.Mayfield's friends and family said they are struggling to understand how a man who never had as much as a traffic ticket and no history of depression or mental illness could be driven to such despair. Teaching had been his profession of choice, but when he graduated from college, there were few teaching jobs to be had. Instead, he followed his father and grandfather into railroad work. After 20 years with the Norfolk and Western Railroad -- a career that outlasted his first marriage -- Mayfield took early retirement and returned to college, determined to make teaching his second career. Mayfield received a master's degree from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in 1992, the same year his son, Robert, graduated from college. Mayfield taught English in Japan and Saudi Arabia.
Myrna, a Philippines native, was working in Saudi Arabia as a midwife. Her first impression was that he was very friendly, kind, and talkative. Slight of build, he shopped in the boys' department.
They married in Virginia, and he took a job teaching English to foreign students in the Roanoke public schools.
He was clearly distraught that October afternoon. He told Myrna that the accusation was the vengeance of an angry teenager. In fact, he said, a week earlier he had touched the chronically disruptive 13-year-old on the chest, emphasizing that the boy needed to behave and pay attention.
When the boy misbehaved again that morning, Mayfield said, he ordered him from the classroom. The boy responded by complaining to the principal that Mayfield had assaulted him the week before. The boy, the son of immigrants from India, had polio as a toddler and uses a wheelchair.
Mayfield was warned about the troubled boy, Abdul Nahibkhil, at the start of the school year by a colleague who said the boy disrupted her class the year before. Abdul's parents, Abdul and Shina Nahibkhil, had come to the United States from India about 27 months earlier. The parents, who speak no English, were interviewed with their daughter Jasmine, 20, serving as interpreter.
"When the investigators came, my parents told them that in India, teachers hit students all the time and they didn't care if Mr. Mayfield hit Abdul or not," the daughter said. "They said if he hit him, he deserved it. But it didn't matter. They didn't care if he hit him or not. They wanted the matter dropped, and they said that they would make Abdul go to school and apologize to Mr. Mayfield."
Abdul denied being disruptive in class. Another sister, Mina, a high school senior, said she had Mayfield as a teacher last year and really liked him.
The parents said they were upset that no one from the school had immediately notified them about their son's accusation. Had the principal called them, they said, they would have told him to drop the whole thing and get Mayfield back in the classroom.
Superintendent E. Wayne Harris and Vicki Price, then-acting director of the city's social service agency, declined to comment. They said the investigation was a personnel matter and was private.
Mayfield did not know Abdul's parents wanted to drop the case, his wife said. He contacted an attorney from the Virginia Education Association. As each day went by, he grew more depressed.
On Saturday, Oct. 11, he picked up his wife from work and gave her some startling news.
"I'm not supposed to be here today," he told her. "I thought about committing suicide today."
Then he handed her a three-page suicide letter.
"Hi, Honey," it began, "I am writing this to come clean with everybody. . . . I cannot have my face on television and in the newspaper over this incident, an incident where I was attempting to teach Abdul a lesson and wake him up. . . . I am so tired and so nervous, almost paranoid that the police are going to be knocking on our door at any moment to arrest me."
His wife wept.
"I have to see your mother and talk about this," she recalls telling him. "I cannot carry this myself anymore. I can't handle it anymore."
So they drove to his parents' house in Vinton.
He had not told his parents about his suspension. They were stunned.
His father, Ronald, a soft-spoken man, told him, "Ronnie, if you really think that this is going to hurt us, if you commit suicide, that is going to hurt us a lot worse." They kept talking, and eventually Mayfield said he would not kill himself. They asked for his promise, and he gave it.
On the way home, he told his wife that if anyone found out that he had considered killing himself, it would make him look guilty. He never spoke of it again.
On Oct. 15, police informed the school that they had found no evidence to support Abdul's allegation. School officials did not pass the information on to Mayfield, his family said.
The next morning, Mayfield was out of bed before 6:30 a.m. He told his wife he had to visit a friend.
"I won't be long," he said, kissing his wife. "I love you."
The soaring bridge that carries the Blue Ridge Parkway over the Roanoke River held such a special place in his life that he used a photo of it as his computer screen saver.
When she got his final phone call at 8:01 a.m., he did not tell her that was where he had gone. In the minutes after he dropped into the river, his cellphone, abandoned on the sidewalk, rang again and again without answer.