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Authors: Torey Hayden

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BOOK: Just Another Kid
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Leslie proved to be only slightly less of a challenge than Dirkie, and in some ways, she was more. Being untrained, she left me with the distasteful task of wrestling wet diapers off her several times a day, made less pleasant by the need to root around in them with a dipstick to check her sugar levels. Changing her presented other problems. Either I had to leave the other two alone in the classroom while I rushed Leslie down the hall to the girls’ rest room, or else I had to retire discreetly to the depths of the steel shelving and hope there weren’t going to be any nasty surprises. Taking Dirkie and Mariana to the rest room with me was out of the question. Seeing Leslie undressed and my cleaning her proved too much stimulation for Dirkie. He would masturbate frenetically against the sink or toilet-stall doors and use incredibly descriptive language. This, in turn, would get Mariana going. Sexuality and sexual matters were very much a part of both children’s disturbances, and I couldn’t allow Leslie to be exploited in this way. But it made the logistics of changing her difficult to cope with.

In the classroom, Leslie did nothing. If I told her to sit, she sat. But if I didn’t, she would remain stranded wherever I had left her. She did nothing without being physically oriented to it and told to do it, but once started, she would continue a task until physically stopped. For example, if I gave her crayons and paper and asked her to draw, she would begin making marks on the paper and continue until the entire page was covered and still continue coloring over this.

She was the most withdrawn child I had encountered. I had the impression some days of not only mental absence, but almost of physical absence as well, as if she weren’t really there at all, as if I were in the company of a hologram.

On the other hand, admittedly, Leslie was no trouble in other ways. If left to her own devices, she got up to no mischief. She got up to nothing whatsoever, other than a little self-stimulation. She didn’t speak. She gave no indication of being able to, although her file stated that she had spoken, when younger. She made no noises whatsoever except when she cried, which wasn’t often.

In my opinion, Leslie needed very intensive work, the kind of one-to-one stimulation that was next to impossible within the constraints of my classroom. I had to leave her far too often quietly “disappeared.” I compensated by using every spare opportunity to make physical contact, to hold her, to touch her, to cuddle her and keep her close. Even then, Leslie seemed to be not much more than a body with no child in it, but holding her was the only way I could reassure myself that she really existed.

Poor Mariana was in lousy company. Regardless of her own problems, compared to Dirkie and Leslie, she was a world ahead. Glumly accepting that she was going to have no best friend in this class, she took her folder of work each morning and sat alone at the far end of the table. She was just as hopeless at academics as everyone had said and could have used a whole lot more of my time, but her difficulties were neither serious enough nor dramatic enough to compete with those of the other two. I was grateful for Mariana’s presence, however, from a purely selfish point of view. She was someone with whom I could have an occasional sane conversation. And I tried to reserve her some special, uninterrupted time, but with Leslie and Dirkie, that was a challenge. They couldn’t be ignored, and Mariana was capable of understanding that sometimes I did have to ignore her. So she soldiered on without complaint.

I knew what I needed—an aide. Desperately. During most of my years as a teacher in special education, I’d worked with children at the severe end of the emotional-disturbance spectrum and had had some kind of assistance in the classroom. Even with my smallest classes, there had been an extra pair of hands. It made all the difference in the world. Someone to change Leslie or watch the others while I did, someone to oversee while I gave a child individual instruction, someone to provide feedback, to laugh with, to chew over the day’s events, to compare bruises on the shins with—that was what I needed.

I discussed the matter with Carolyn. We had joined the local health club and started going down to the spa most evenings after work for a swim and a sauna, or a soak in the whirlpool. I quizzed her during those relaxed evenings. She had one full-time trained aide and two volunteers, who appeared regularly. Being so new to the community, I didn’t have the resources necessary to locate volunteers. Where had she found hers? Did she know of anyone else who might be interested? Did she have any alternate ideas?

I also went to talk to Frank Cotton, the Director of Special Education. I got to know Frank much better than I had any previous director, which was the one advantage of having a classroom in the administration building. I saw him daily. He was one of the gang, taking his coffee breaks in the teachers’ lounge with us, eating lunch with us at Enrico’s, and this quickly put us on a genuine first-name basis, the way it is with friends.

“I’m beginning to think it’s me,” I said. We were in his office, a long, narrow room converted from a storage closet, chosen because it abutted the main office, a former classroom. “I’ve got only three kids, for crying out loud, but it’s just not coming together as a class.” I explained my feelings of constantly shuttling between Dirkie and Leslie and getting nothing else accomplished.

Frank leaned back in his chair. He smiled gently. “You’re feeling out of practice.”

I nodded and grinned. “Yes, I guess it is a bit of that. But I keep thinking, we’re going to make a cohesive group out of this lot yet. I was always so good at that in the old days. I could make a group out of any sort of rabble. But it’s not happening this time.”

“It’s early yet,” Frank said.

“It still should be giving some sign of happening.”

Frank continued to lean back. He fingered his lip. “Not enough kids.”

“Quite enough kids, thank you.”

“No, I mean it. Not enough to make a group of. You’ve always had bigger classes before, haven’t you?”

I nodded. “But not much. I had only four when I was teaching at the state hospital, and we made a hell of a group there.” I smiled in what I hoped was a very disarming way. “What I
need
, Frank, is an aide.”

“Wish I could afford one for you.”

I knew I couldn’t have one, even before I’d said it, but it felt good to put it in words, to say it to someone in charge. “Any volunteers that you know of?”

He shook his head. “Not that I’m aware of. You should ask Carolyn. She seems to keep a secret supply.”

“I’ve tried Carolyn already. No luck.”

We continued to talk. Frank slowly diverted the conversation away from my aide business and on to other things. When a natural pause came into the conversation, he leaned forward. I sensed a change of topic. Clasping his hands together, Frank pressed them pensively against his lips a moment and stared at the orderly stacks of papers on his desk. His eyes rose to meet mine.

“That earlier conversation …” He paused, looked away, looked back. “It’s going to make what I have to say now a little harder.”

I wondered suddenly if I had done something wrong.

Frank smiled. “It’s nothing major. It’s just that … well, how can I say it? You’re getting two more children next week.”

“Two?”

“Yes. Sisters. Five and eight. They’re from Northern Ireland.”

“Oh.”

“Their family’s been embroiled in the trouble going on over there, and now the girls have come to live with relatives to get them out of all that, to give them a new start, that sort of thing. They’ve been up at Washington Elementary since school started, but it isn’t working out. They’re not integrating.”

“I see.”

“The younger one isn’t talking at all, so I thought of you immediately. With your experience in elective mutism, your room seemed the ideal place for them.”

I think I was too stunned to talk. Here I’d come in to complain about being unable to cope with the children I had, and I was ending up with two more.

If Frank sensed my benumbed state, he was ignoring it. “Like I said earlier, I think you need more kids to get organized. Three’s not a group. At least those three aren’t. Besides, it’ll be better for Mariana Gilchrist.” He smiled cheerfully. “This way, you can get the momentum going.”

I didn’t doubt that.

Chapter 3

I
remember, as a girl, hearing a newscast about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and asking my grandfather to explain the issue to me. When he had, it offended my child’s sensibilities. A war between the Catholics and the Protestants? How could that be? I’d asked him. They wouldn’t even be able to tell themselves apart.

They would and they could and they did. My few years in Wales, another Celtic country still chafing hundreds of years after English conquest, had given me more insight into the issue, into its remarkable complexity, into its lack of resolution. But more than anything, my time there had made me well aware that I still had no understanding of the matter. I remained an American, born and raised in a young country created from immigrant diversity. I had no resources upon which to call when it came to comprehending four-hundred-year-old memories of invaders and usurpers. I had no eye for seeing the differences that they saw among themselves and even less for appreciating their need to see them. As a result, I came back from Wales with nothing more than the knowledge that I didn’t know. The only thing I did have a strong conviction about was the violence—too prevalent and too senseless. It destroyed my sympathies for both causes.

As a consequence, perhaps I was a particularly inappropriate choice of teacher for these two girls. Our community had a strong Irish connection and was openly pro-IRA. The story of the girls preceded them. Long before I ever met them, I heard about them in the grocery store and the gas station, their history being passed on word-of-mouth, like an epic saga. I came to recognize the sad expression and the sorrowful tone of voice that accompanied the telling; the children were made minor celebrities by their suffering.

According to the stories, the girls’ father had been an active IRA man. About eighteen months previously, he was arrested by the Royal Ulster Constabulary in a big sweep-up operation and accused of participating in some very serious acts, including murder. However, he was released shortly afterward. Rumor sprang up that he was, in fact, an informer, although no concrete evidence was presented to substantiate this. Soon, he and his family were being harassed, although no one yet seemed to know who was doing what. Was it the IRA getting back at their own? One of the splinter groups? Or was it the paramilitary wing of one of the Protestant groups exploiting the advantage of having an IRA man identified? Whatever, one night a petrol bomb was thrown through the letter slot in the front door. The house caught fire, and while the father managed to rescue his two daughters, his wife and young son died in the blaze. Within three weeks of the fire, the man was found hanged in his brother’s garage, a suicide. The girls were shunted back and forth among relatives in the large, extended family until finally, in midsummer, they were granted American visas to come and live here with their father’s sister and her husband.

After all this presage, actually meeting Geraldine and Shemona McCulley the Monday morning they arrived in my class was a bit of a disappointment. They were something out of a myth by that time, and I think I was expecting them to look the part. They didn’t. They were two very ordinary little girls with moon-shaped, freckled faces and blue-gray eyes. Shemona, poignantly named after what her mother had believed to be a peace settlement in Israel, but which turned out to be a town victimized by the same kind of terrorism as Belfast, was the younger child. She had longish, rumpled-looking blond hair and grubby knees. Geraldine wore glasses with ghastly pink plastic frames that gave her the look of a fifties housewife. Her dark hair was cut in a short, blunt style that we used to call a Dutch bob when I was little.

Frank and the girls’ aunt brought them in early, before the other children had arrived. The sisters entered meekly, the younger one clutching a well-worn stuffed monkey in one hand and her aunt’s coattail in the other. Mrs. Lonrho indicated the chairs at the table, and both girls sat down grimly, still in their coats, hands folded in their laps. Mrs. Lonrho knelt beside Shemona. She pushed the child’s hair back from her eyes in a gentle gesture. “You be good here, okay? You do as the lady says. She’s here to help you.” Then she rose. She turned to me. “They’re good girls.”

Alone with them, I suggested they take off their coats and then showed them where their hooks were, and their cubbies. Back at the table, they sat side by side. I took out a chair opposite them. I’d made up folders for them to work from. Geraldine reached over and took first her own folder and examined it, and then Shemona’s. The younger girl just sat, the stuffed monkey clutched against her, and did nothing.

“We work a little differently in here than in most classes,” I said. “Everyone is in a different place, so each person has to be responsible for doing the work in her own folder. I come around and help you with it throughout the day, but sometimes I need to be with another child, and then you have to work on your own. Sometimes you’ll get stuck when I’m with someone else, and I won’t be able to come right away to help you. If that happens, you need to skip that part and go on to do something else until I’m free.”

Geraldine nodded. “I can do these,” she said and pointed to one of the papers. “I can do this work.” She glanced briefly at her sister’s folder. “And Shemona says she can do hers too.”

Shemona sat, immobile. She gazed at me steadily, her eyes, like her face, veiled with an unreadable expression.

Mariana was delighted. “This here girl’s going to be my best friend,” she said almost immediately upon entering the room and seeing Shemona and Geraldine. She hauled her chair up next to Geraldine’s. “You want to be my best friend? You want a Life Saver? And then you give me something nice and we’ll be best friends. Okay? You wanna do that?”

Geraldine’s face brightened at the sight of the candy and she accepted it eagerly, popping it into her mouth. Then she looked expectantly for more. “Shemona wants one,” she said.

Mariana looked up.

“Give Shemona a sweetie.”


You’re
going to be my best friend. Not her. She’s too little.”

With a suddenness none of us had anticipated, Geraldine snatched the roll of Life Savers from Mariana’s hands. She deftly popped a candy out and handed it to her sister.

Mariana burst into tears. “They’re mine! My mommy bought them for me.”

“Hey,” I said and reached down to take the Life Savers from Geraldine. “None of this, please.”

At that, Geraldine burst into tears as well.

Dirkie arrived at that point. “Who are they?” he asked, his voice going gravelly with excitement.

“Sit down, Dirkie. These are our two new girls. Remember, I told you last Friday that we’d be having some new children today. Now please sit down.”

Geraldine snuffled.

Mariana still bawled. “They’re mine, Teacher.”

“All right. Here.” I gave her back the roll of candy. “Now, what’s the rule regarding bringing in candy?”

Mariana said nothing.

“You’ve got to
share
,” Dirkie said with great feeling. He was cottoning on to the presence of the candy.

“That’s right. You have to share. Now, if you gave Geraldine a piece, it’s only fair that you give Shemona one. And Dirkie. Then put them away, unless you want to share them all out.”

Mariana began to cry again. “That’s not fair. My mommy bought them for
me
.”

“I can appreciate how you feel. You like your candy and you want to keep it. But it also isn’t fair to give a piece just to Geraldine. Geraldine was right to be concerned about her sister, although perhaps she needn’t have snatched the candy in quite that way.”

Mariana begrudgingly handed out a Life Saver to Dirkie and then returned to her seat to count how many were left. She squirreled the rest of them away in the pocket of her jumper. “What are you gonna give
me
now?” she asked Geraldine.

Geraldine shrugged. “Haven’t anything.”

Glumly, Mariana kicked the leg of the table. “Some best friend you’ve turned out to be.”

Dirkie was mesmerized by the two girls. He spent much of the morning simply watching them. Then after lunch he took to circling the table, and it occurred to me what was so fascinating to him: It was Shemona’s hair. Leslie’s hair was longer and even Mariana’s hair was quite long, and as I had never noticed Dirkie showing interest in either of them, I had assumed he was only preoccupied with adult hair. So I was a bit surprised and certainly dismayed to discover he was attracted to Shemona’s. The only thing I could reckon was that Shemona, like me, was blond, while both Mariana and Leslie were dark. This lent a new dimension to Dirkie’s obsession. Whatever was behind it, he could not leave Shemona’s hair alone. Around and around and around the table he went, his body slightly crouched, his muscles tense with excitement. When he would get in back of her, he’d pause, quivering. If either Shemona or Geraldine turned to look at him, he would jump and then begin circling again. “Hoo-hoo-hoo,” he was whispering under his breath.

“Dirkie, sit
down
,” I said. I was holding Leslie on my lap and trying to work with her, so it was inconvenient to have to keep getting up to reseat him. And his circling was nerve-racking.

Dirkie moved off, but within moments he was back, once again circling like a hyena with its quarry.

“Miss,” Geraldine said, “Shemona doesn’t like this. This boy is bothering her.” “Miss” was the only thing Geraldine would call me.

“Dirkie,” I said, “sit down. Now sit. You’ve got plenty of work in your folder, so please come here, sit down and get busy.”

I pulled his folder closer to where I was sitting, and when he came over, I sat him next to me. Geraldine, farther down and across the table from us, raised her head to watch us.

“You’re a girl,” Dirkie said to her, his voice low.

“So?”

“She’s a girl too,” he said, indicating Shemona.

Geraldine rolled her eyes in an expression of incredulity and went back to her work.

“And she’s a girl and she’s a girl,” Dirkie continued, pointing to Mariana and Leslie. “And
you’re
a girl!” he said to me. “You know what that means?”

“Girls’ pussies,” Mariana supplied. She giggled.

Geraldine looked scandalized.

“Girls, girls, girls!” Dirkie said excitedly.

“Dirkie, time to settle down. Here, let’s get on with your work.” I took a paper from his folder.

He studied Shemona, bent over her work. “And
that
girl,” he said pointedly, “that girl there, that girl with the yellow hair, with the long yellow hair, she’s a girl. She’s got a girl’s pisser, that girl with the long yellow hair.”

“Dirkie, I mean it, settle down.”

The excitement proved too much for him, and Dirkie was up once more, mincing around the table to Shemona.

“Mii-iissss!” squealed Geraldine in exasperation. “We’re trying to work. Make that boy stop.”

Putting Leslie off my lap, I rose and went to catch Dirkie. Taking him by the shoulder, I physically returned him to his chair and pushed him into it.

“That girl has long yellow hair. You have long hair. You have long yellow hair too. Are you going to cut your long yellow hair?”

“No, Dirkie.”

“That girl, is she going to cut her hair? Is that girl going to cut her long yellow hair?”

“She might,” Geraldine said waspishly.

“No, Dirkie, she isn’t going to cut her hair either. Now come on. Here’s today’s math. Let’s see if you can get it finished before recess. I’ll help you get started.”

But he couldn’t reorient. “Hey, girl,” he said, “girl with the long yellow hair, do you have a cat?”

Geraldine came over to me toward the end of the afternoon. “Shemona doesn’t like that boy, Miss.”

“Yes, he can be annoying, that’s for certain. But if Shemona doesn’t like him, all she needs to do is tell him to go away. And he will. He doesn’t mean any harm.”

Geraldine frowned.

“What about you? I asked. “What do you think of him?”

“Shemona thinks he’s silly. So do I.”

I was grateful to see that particular day done. While nothing major happened, it had been hard work. I’d been nervous about these two girls with all their tragic fame, and it had left me on edge. The others were unsettled by the change. Dirkie, especially, had remained impossible all day long, and I was ready to skewer him by the last hour. In an effort to hasten the end, I agreed to let everyone out on the playground five minutes early to wait for their rides. It was a clear, sharp September day, and I knew the tensions would evaporate more quickly in the brisk air.

Mariana’s and Dirkie’s buses came. Then Shemona and Geraldine’s aunt arrived to collect them. That left just Leslie, holding my hand.

“Where’s your mama?” I asked. “It’s not like her to be late.” I scanned the length of the street for Dr. Taylor’s dark blue Mercedes. Normally, she was extremely punctual, waiting at the wheel of the car when I brought the children down. She even occasionally came up to the classroom to get Leslie, if I ran a minute or two late.

We waited for a few moments longer, and then I took Leslie around the corner of the building to the playground and pushed her on the swing. She adored swinging. It was the single activity to evoke any kind of genuine response from her. She would close her eyes and let her head fall back, her long, dark hair fanning out behind her. While swinging, Leslie came the closest I had seen her come to smiling.

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