Hazel McHaffie

Triumph over adversity

At this time of year the plight of children for whom it’s not a magical season tugs at the heartstrings in a particularly poignant way. The starving, the abused, the institutionalised, the unloved, the unwanted, the severely disabled  … you know the haunting images as well as I do. But I wonder how often we think of those who work behind the scenes to rescue these waifs.

Imagine day after day after day, being shut in a room with eight children all with severe emotional, educational and social problems, several still incontinent, and just one unqualified helper (an uneducated migrant worker).

I can’t. I’d be completely out of my depth.

Not Torey Hayden; that’s her workplace. Children ‘whose entire lives [a]re chaotic tragedies‘ are her forte. But even she is somewhat fazed when she’s asked to add to the mix a six-year-old girl who has recently abducted a neighbour’s four-year-old, tied him to a tree, and deliberately burned him. The courts have decreed this seriously troubled little girl – SIX YEARS OLD – must go to the state hospital. But there’s no space available at the moment … no room at the inn. Hmmm. She must be placed somewhere

Miss Hayden’s class, known colloquially as the ‘garbage class‘, it is then. The dumping ground for young ‘human refuse‘, the severely disturbed, the emotionally fragile, the most educationally disabled, those from chaotic and disrupted homes, the all-round challenging. Last stop before the institution.

Torey’s take on these little people caught up in cycles of violence, poverty, addiction, abuse, neglect and apathy is

‘ … for some children, even love will never be enough. But belief in the human soul escapes all reason and flies beyond the frail fingers of our knowledge ….’

‘Some of these children live with such haunted nightmares in their heads that every move is fraught with unknown terror. Some live with such violence and perversity that it cannot be captured in words. Some live without the dignity accorded to animals. Some live without love. Some live without hope. Yet they endure.’

One Child is not written to evoke pity for the child, or praise for the teacher, or to ruffle the peace of mind of those who chose not to know. Rather it’s a song to the human soul, because this little girl – the closest thing to an unteachable child her previous teacher had ever encountered – is at heart a survivor.

It was never going to be plain sailing. Sheila is filthy and infested; she’s been abandoned by her mother, blamed by her father; she makes a dramatic debut gouging out the eyes of the class goldfish with a pencil and flinging them on the floor to suffocate; she absolutely refuses to do any paperwork even though she’s well above average intelligence, destroying every piece of paper put before her; she completely wrecks a neighbouring classroom when Torey goes away to a conference for two days. But gradually, gradually, inch by inch, she learns a better way of being, how to relate to other people, how to curb her emotions. And this exceptionally perceptive woman rescues her from a frightening future.

Of course I have no means of verifying the veracity of this author’s account – and I confess I took David Pelzer’s books about his childhood abuse at face value, though they were subsequently called into question. I cringed at Hayden’s use of words like ‘retarded’ and ‘crazy’ too. Nevertheless I found it beneficial to think myself into the mind of this little girl and her teacher, and to watch good triumph over tragedy.

I’ve long had a problem with certain awards and honours going to celebrity figures like sportsmen and actors. Low profile people like Torey Hayden who labour day after day to make a difference to unknown families, unseen and unsung – now they really do deserve our respect and admiration.

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