Can a severely damaged child ever be redeemed? Gerald Haigh reads a former teacher's hopeful memoir
A few years ago, a taxi taking me to Liverpool Lime Street station passed a shopping centre. "This is where that Bulger boy was abducted," the driver remarked. Then he added: "How many of us did something dreadful when we were kids that we daren't remember now?"
Few people in Liverpool or anywhere else would have been able to admit to any such thoughts when two-year-old James Bulger was killed by his two 10-year-old kidnappers in 1993. The received wisdom is that there's something especially threatening and sinister about child killers. The idea that children, whom we think of as inherently innocent, can be so cruel is repellent and fascinating.
When a six-year-old girl called Sheila came to Torey Hayden's small special needs class in a school in the United States in the 1970s, it seemed she might bear that metaphorical mark of evil. She'd recently abducted a three-year-old boy, tied him to a tree and burned him, leaving him in a critical condition.
It's become a cliche to say that a difficult or disturbed child's early history "makes shocking reading." In this case the phrase is justified.
Sheila had been abandoned by her mother, then by her father, who had been in prison most of the time anyway. Then came the ultimate rejection.
"Sheila had been shifted around among relatives and friends before finally being abandoned on a roadside, where she was found clinging to a chain-link fence that separated the freeway lanes."
The first classroom crisis, in the lunch break on day one, was every teacher's nightmare. "Sheila stood defiantly on a chair by the aquarium," writes Hayden. "She had apparently caught the goldfish one by one and poked their eyes out with a pencil."
The effect on the other children, all with challenging problems, was devastating. One child ran off screaming. A blind boy whose behavioural difficulties kept him out of the appropriate school hid under the table crying for his mother. Yet another pupil fell to the floor in a seizure.
Sheila escaped through the door. Chaos reigned, and of course at that moment, in walked the principal, who had already displayed doubts about Hayden's approach.
"Now I had failed," she writes. "Just like (the principal) always predicted. My crazies had gotten loose at last." She describes how she later found Sheila in the gym, trembling and wetting herself. ("You gonna whip me?" "No Sheila, I don't whip kids.") A fairytale would go uphill from here. There would be a story of growing trust and communication, with regular small triumphs on the way. But this is a real classroom in the real world and you know it can't be like that.
Sheila wasn't mute, and hadn't retreated into herself in a way that called for "drawing out". On the contrary, she was clever and manipulative, with "a keenly developed sense of revenge that knew no limits".
It was this trait that led to yet more horrifying incidents: Sheila killing the baby gerbils one of the team had brought in on loan from his son; Sheila destroying another teacher's classroom and finally being beaten by the frustrated school principal.
The horror is relentless. Three-quarters into the book, we read an account of Sheila being violently sexually abused by a relative, to the point where she needed emergency surgery.
A happier ending does come. We read how patient teaching brought out Sheila's imagination and ability, especially in maths. Eventually Hayden and Sheila move on with regrets and tears. And, as the Torey Hayden website tells us, Sheila is now enjoying a settled existence as an adult. The author, meanwhile, has settled in Wales, and is a past president of Welsh ChildLine.
One Child, Hayden's first book, has been available in the US since 1980, and its publication here is surely overdue. Though focused on Sheila, it's really the story of a whole class, and of the adults who helped manage it.
So much learning took place there on all sides and, though the events described are 25 years in the past, the lessons remain valid. They tell us that the relentless application of love and attention to a disturbed child can eventually win through and, importantly, that this will always involve, at some point, standing up to authority on behalf of the child. The road's not easy. Every professional knows there'll be times when the child you think you're winning over lets you down, often in a way that leaves you staring at the ceiling in the night.
Eventually, though, come the clues that reveal just how your values, sometimes just your little asides, have been taken on board. For Hayden it was the remarkable poem sent to her by Sheila that closes this book ("Then you came, with your funny way").
For you, it might well be a poem or a letter. More likely, though, it'll be an encounter with an old pupil that eventually produces the words: "I always remember what you used to say to me..."