For the four children Torey Hayden profiles in "Somebody Else's Kids," much of the controversy surrounding public education today is irrelevant. These children can't go "back to basics" since they've never been there in the first place. The possibilities of their doing advanced math or joining accelerated reading groups are nil. And the testing controversy passes above their heads; there are probably no SATs in their futures. These are children who've been abused, either by violence or the tricks of nature; they suffer short circuits, emotionally and mentally. It was Torey Hayden's job as their special resource teacher for three hours a day during one school year to try and see that they were not shortchanged educationally.
Hayden could have been self-congratulatory in this account of that year. Instead, she is remarkably frank about her own failures and self-doubt, about the beating her personal life tookk because she was so absorbed in her work. As for what she accomplished -- in some ways it wasn't much. Boo, the autistic 7-year-old boy whose only speech is a singsong replay of weather reports he's heard on the radio, still cannot converse. Lori, age 7, bright, articulate, creative, still cannot read: She suffers from a brain lesion caused by a head injury inflicted by a violent father.
Yet, Hayden does finish the year with some victories: Tomaso, an angry and violent 10-year-old Chicano boy who as a small child watched his mother kill his father, has simmered down and is catching up with his age group. Claudia, 12, who comes to the special class because she is pregnant and has been kicked out of her parochial school, decides to follow Hayden's advice and give up her baby for adoption.
Apparently the small victories have not been enough to keep Hayden in teaching, since the dust jacket informs us that she now lives and writes (this is her second book) in Wales. We all lose when a good teacher burns out, but Hayden has continued to make a contribution to education with this vivid dramatizatin of what it feels like to be on the supply side of a teacher's desk.
Not that Hayden appears to have spent too much time behind hers. Things are much too busy. To deal with two of her students, Hayden must be fast on her feet. On Tomasco's first day in class, he announces coolly, "I could kick you in the a--." Later, after a particularly unpleasant outburst, he threatens Hayden with a pair of scissors, pinning her against the wall. The incident concludes in a dramatic scene as Tomasco weeps. "Why are you always lookin in me . . . I wanted to hate you. Why wouldn't you let me?"
Boo also tends to voilence, although his is almost always directed against himself. In painfully terrifying spells, he runs screaming around the classroom, flapping his arms, clawing his face, often until he draws blood, and pulling off his clothes. The only solution is for Hayden to tackel him and hold him tight until quiet is eventually restored.
Boo, because he is such an aberration, becomes a focal point for the class. Everyone wants to help him, and eliciting something from his besides chirps and wails and stale weather reports become a group project. Lori endlessly looks at picture books with him; even Tomaso tries to be patient, and for Claudia he is the final reality that convinces her to discard her dream of keeping the baby she bears. "I didn't want her like Boo. I didn't want to hurt her," she tells Hayden in a tearful phone call near the book's end.
Hayden is a fine storyteller, and "Somebody Else's Kids" has many of the elements of good fiction. The children offer interesting contrasts as examples of the different types of problems many teachers face when working with the learning disabled or emotionally disturbed. Hayden carefully delineates each child's character, and she is most successful when her gaze is on them. The narrative has a climax when Lori suffers a cruel humiliation in her regular classroom and responds with a breakdown of sorts. And there is even a villain -- Lori's teacher, Edna Thorsen, who has such choice lines as, "Let me tell you something . . . This is a school, not some baby-sitting service for your poor little morons."
Hayden is also successful recounting her exchanges with the children and their families, the ingenious ways they all deal with Boo, the touching bonds that form among the children and between Hayden and her students. When she says she loves them, we are convinced.
The book is least successful when Hayden descends to self-analysis, and we're downright impatient when she confesses and reconfesses her spinelessness in the face of the Edna Thorsens of this world.
As a writer, she occasionally slips. As a teacher she seems to have been right on target. When asked by a state education official who has been observing her class, what her "model for treating these children" is, she replies, "I change what I surmise I have a chance at changing. The rest I accept, at least until I can figure out what to do about it. That's all. Nothing fancy."