Authors: Torey L. Hayden
"I wouldn't want to stink everybody out of the class,, that's for sure."
"That's not what I asked."
"It'd hurt my feelings," Tyler volunteered, bouncing up on her knees. Any displays of anger or disagreement frightened Tyler tremendously and sent her into rounds of appeasement, acting overly mature for her eight years and motherly toward those who disagreed.
"How about you, Sarah?" I asked. "How would you feel?"
Sarah stared at her fingers, reluctant to look at me. "I wouldn't like it too good."
"No, I don't think any of us would. What might be a better way of handling the problem?"
"You could learn her in private that she stinked," William offered. "Then she wouldn't get embarrassed."
"You could learn her not to," Guillermo added.
"We could all plug our noses," Peter said. He wasn't quite willing to admit yet that he had been inappropriate in his remarks.
"That wouldn't help any, Peter," William said. "Then you couldn't breathe."
"You could too. You could breathe through your mouth."
I laughed. "Everybody, try Peter's suggestion. Peter, you too." All the children except Sheila plugged their noses and breathed through their mouths. I urged her to try too, but she steadfastly refused to unfold. In a few moments we were all laughing, even Freddie and Max, at the funny faces we made. All of us, except Sheila. I was beginning to fear that she saw this as a joke at her expense and I hastened to explain it wasn't. She ignored me, not even looking at me. This was the way we solved our problems, I told her.
"How's this make you feel?" I asked her at last. There was a long silence, pregnant with our waiting. The other children became impatient.
"Don't she talk?" Guillermo asked.
"I used to not talk either, remember that?" Sarah offered. "Back when I was mad, I used to never talk to nobody." She looked over at Sheila. "I used to never talk, Sheila. So I know how it feels."
"Well, I think we've put Sheila in the hot seat enough for now. Let's give her some time to get used to us, okay?"
We went on with the rest of morning discussion and finished with a rousing chorus of "You Are My Sunshine." Freddie clapped gleefully; Guillermo directed with his hands; Peter sang at the top of his lungs; and I manipulated Tyler like a rag doll. But Sheila sat, her face stormy, her little body a solid lump in the way of the dancers.
After discussion we dispersed for math activities. Anton began orienting the others while I showed Sheila around the room. Actually, I did not show her. I had to pick her up and carry her around from place to place because she would not move. I was thankful I was not teaching adolescents. Then when I got here where I wanted her, she refused to look, covering her face with her hands. But I hauled her around anyway, determined she become part of us. I showed her her cubby and her coat hook. I introduced her to Charles, the iguana, and Benny, the snake, and Onions, the rabbit who bit if you bothered him too much. I pointed out the plants we had started before Christmas that I had had to come in on vacation to water; and the stories we read before lunch every day; and the dishes we cooked with on Wednesday afternoons. I showed her our aquarium and our toys. I lifted her up to view the scene from our lone window. All this was accomplished by lugging her from place to place and chattering as if she were very interested in what I had to say.
But if she was, she did not let me know. She remained a dead weight in my arms, rigid and tense against my body. And she stank like an outhouse on a muggy July afternoon.
Finally I deposited Sheila on a chair at the table and got out a math paper. This evoked her first response. She grabbed the paper, wadded it up and threw it at me. I took another. She repeated the action. I took another. Again it was flung in my face. I knew I would run out of papers before she would run out of energy. So I took her on my lap, wrapping an arm around her wiry body so she could not get her hands free. I set another math paper down. It was simple addition; two plus one, one plus four, nothing fancy. I pulled a tray of blocks toward me with my free arm and spilled them on the table.
"Okay, now we do math," I stated. "First problem, two plus one." I showed her two blocks and added a third. "How much is that? Let's count them." She averted her head, straining her stiff body against me. "Can you count, Sheila?" No response. "Come on, I'll help. One, two, three. Two plus one is three." I picked up a pencil. "Here, we'll write it down."
Everything was a battle. I had to pry a hand free from her body, then uncurl her fingers, then place the pencil in it. Suddenly those tightly clenched fingers lost their strength and the pencil slid effortlessly out of them and onto the floor. In the moment I bent to pick up the pencil she had grabbed two blocks with her free hand and flung them across the room. I clutched at the hand, shoved the pencil back into it and tried to recurl her fingers around it and grip it with my own hand before she could let the pencil drop again. But she had me at a disadvantage; I was left-handed and forced to use that arm to subdue her in my lap. Having to use my right to perform all these dexterous movements, I was just not fast enough. Perhaps I would not have been even with my left. She was skilled at this little bit of guerilla warfare and the pencil fell again. After another struggle I gave up.
"Evidently you don't want to do math just yet. Okay, you may sit. I will say to you that everyone in here does his work and tries his best. But we're not going to fight about it. You want to sit, you sit." I lugged her over to the corner where I isolated the children when they became too over-stimulated and needed to regain control, or when they acted miserably, trying to command attention. I pulled the chair out and sat Sheila in it. Then I returned to the other children.
In a few moments I looked up. "Sheila, if you're ready to join us, you may come over."
She sat, her face to the wall and did not move. I let her sit. In another few minutes, I reissued the conditions. And again a little later. It was obvious that she was not going to do anything I wanted. I went over and pulled the chair away from the corner and into the room. Then I went back to the others. If she wanted to sit, she could. However, I was not going to let her isolate herself from us. If she sat, it would be right out in the middle of us.
Our morning routine went as usual. Sheila participated in nothing. Once ensconced upon that small wooden chair, she would not move, but instead drew in upon herself, folding knees up under her chin and wrapping her arms around them. She got off the chair one time to use the bathroom but returned to her seat to resume her contorted position. Even during recess she sat, only this time on the freezing cement. I had never seen such a motionless child. But her eyes followed me continuously everywhere I went. Brooding, angry, bitter eyes never left my face.
When lunch came, Anton helped the children prepare for their trek from the annex over to the cafeteria. Sheila had been lugged into line but I came and got her, taking her skinny wrist and pulling her out of the line. We waited until the others had gone. I looked down at her and she up at me. I thought that for a brief moment I saw an emotion other than hate flicker through those eyes, something other than anger. Fear?
"Come over here." I tugged her to the table and set her down in a chair opposite me. "You and I have something to get straight."
She glowered at me, her tiny shoulders humping up under the worn shirt.
"There aren't a lot of rules in this room. There are just two really, unless we need to make special rules for special times. But generally there are just two. One is that you can't hurt anybody in here. Not anybody else. And not yourself. The second is that you always try to do your best job. That's the rule I don't think you have straight yet."
She lowered her head slightly but kept her eyes on me. The legs came up and once again she began to fold in upon herself.
"You see, one of the things you have to do in here is talk. I know that's hard when you're not used to doing it. But in here you talk, that's part of your best job. The first time is always the hardest, and sometimes it kind of makes you cry. Well, that's okay to do in here. But you have to talk. And sooner or later you will. It'll be a lot better if you do it sooner." I looked at her, trying to match her unflinching stare. "Is that clear to you?"
Her face blackened with anger. I was fearful of what might happen if all that hate got loose, but I tried to squash the fear, not letting it show in my eyes. She was a good reader of eyes.
I had always felt strongly about setting expectations for my kids. Some of my colleagues had been skeptical of my directness with the children, pleading the frailty of their egos. I disagreed. While certainly all of them had sad, well-trampled little selves, none of them was frail. Much to the contrary. The fact that they had survived long enough to be where they were after what most of them had been through was testimony to their strength. However, all of them lived chaotic lives and brought chaos on others by the nature of their disturbance. I did not feel it was my right to add to the chaos by leaving them to guess what I expected of them. I found establishing a structure a useful and productive method with all the children because it erased the fuzziness of our relationship. Obviously, they had already shown they could not handle their own limits without help, or they never would have arrived in my class to begin with. As soon as the time came that they could, I began the process of transferring the power to them. But in the beginning I wanted there to be no doubt about what I expected from them.
So Sheila and I sat in icy silence while she digested this bit of information. I did not have the endurance to stare her down, nor did I feel the need to do so. After a few moments I rose from my chair and went to collect the math papers from the correction basket.
"You can't make me talk," she said.
I continued shuffling through the papers trying to find the marking pen. Three-fourths of being a good teacher is timing.
"I said you can't make me talk. There don't be no way you can do that."
I looked over at her.
"You can't make me."
"No, I can't." I smiled. "But you will. That's part of your job in here."
"I don't like you."
"You don't have to."
"I hate you."
I did not respond. That was one of those statements that I find is often best left unanswered. So I continued my search for the pen, wondering who had walked off with it this time.
"You can't make me do nothing in here. You can't make me talk."
"Maybe not." I dropped the papers back into the basket and came over to her. "Shall we go to lunch?" I extended a hand to her. Some of the anger had dissipated to be replaced by a less readable emotion. Then without further urging she got off the chair and came with me, careful not to touch me.
AFTER ESCORTING SHEILA TO THE LUNCH room I retired to the office to have a look at her file. I wanted to know what others had done with this perplexing child. From watching her, it was apparent that she did not suffer from the crippling, unexplainable disturbances such as Max and Susannah displayed. Instead, she was in surprisingly good control of her behavior, more so than most of the children coming into my class. Behind those hate-filled eyes I saw a perceptive and most likely intelligent little girl. She had to be in order to manipulate her world with such conscious effort. But I wanted to know what had been tried before.
The file was surprisingly thin for one that had worked its way to me. Most of my children had thick, paper-bloated folders, glutted with verbose opinions of dozens of doctors and therapists and judges and social workers. It was plain to me every time I read one of those files that the people filling them never had to work with the child day in and day out for hours at a time. The words on the papers were erudite discourses, but they did not tell a desperate teacher or frightened parent how to help. I doubt anyone could write such words. In reality, each of the children was so different and grew in such unpredictable ways that one day's experience was the only framework for planning the next. There were no textbooks or university courses specializing in Max or William or Peter.