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Authors: Torey Hayden

Beautiful Child

BOOK: Beautiful Child
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Torey Hayden
Beautiful Child

This book is based on the author’s experiences. In order to protect privacy, names and some identifying characteristics, dialogue and details have been changed or reconstructed. Some characters are not based on any one person but are composite characters.

Chapter One

he first time I saw her, she was atop a stone wall that ran along the west side of the playground. Lolling back with one leg outstretched, one drawn up, her dark hair tumbling opulently down behind her, she had her eyes closed, her face turned to the sun. The pose gave her the aura of some long-forgotten Hollywood glamour queen and that’s what caught my attention, because she could, in fact, have only been six or seven.

I went on past her and up the walk to the school. Seeing me coming, the principal, Bob Christianson, came out from the school office. “Hey, darned good!” he cried heartily and clapped me on the shoulder. “Great to see you. Just great. I’ve been so looking forward to this. We’re going to have good fun this year, hey? Great times!”

In the face of such enthusiasm I could only laugh. Bob and
I had a long history together. When I was just a struggling beginner, Bob had given me one of my first jobs. In those days he was director of a program researching learning disabilities, and his noisy, casual, hippy-inspired approach to dealing with the deprived, difficult children in his care had alarmed many in our rather conservative community at the time. Admittedly, it had alarmed me a little in the beginning too, because I was newly out of teacher training and not too accustomed to thinking for myself. Bob had provided me with just the right amount of encouragement and direction while bullishly refusing to believe anything I claimed to have learned from my university course work. As a consequence, I spent a heady, rather wild couple of years learning to defend myself and finding my own style in the classroom along the way.

At the time it was an almost ideal working environment for me, and Bob almost single-handedly molded me into the kind of teacher I would become, but in the end he was too successful. I learned not only to question the precepts and practicalities of the theories I was taught in the university, but I also began to question Bob’s. There was too much insubstantial pop psychology in his approach to satisfy me; so when I felt I’d grown as much as I could in that setting, I moved on.

A lot of time had passed for both of us in the interim. I’d worked in other schools, other states, other countries, even. I’d branched out into clinical psychology and research, as well as special education. I’d even taken a couple of years
away from education altogether. Bob, meantime, had stayed local and moved in and out of the private and public sectors, in and out of regular and special education. We’d stayed in touch in a rather casual way, although neither of us had kept close track of what the other was doing. As a consequence, it had been a delightful surprise to discover Bob was now the principal of the new school I was being sent to.

Our state school system was in the midst of one of its seemingly endless reorganizations. The previous year, I’d worked in an adjacent district as a learning support teacher. I was going from school to school to work with small groups of children and to provide backup support for teachers who had special education students integrated into their classrooms. Although this program had been in place only two years, the system decided it wasn’t working effectively enough with the bottom-end children. Consequently, a third of the learning support teachers were given permanent classrooms to allow children with more serious and disruptive behaviors to have longer periods of special education placement.

I jumped at the chance to give up the peripatetic lifestyle and have a classroom again, because I enjoyed that milieu enormously and felt it best suited my teaching style. Ending up in Bob’s school was a bonus.

“Wait till you see this room,” Bob was saying as we climbed the stairs. And stairs. And stairs. “It’s such a super room, Torey. From the time I knew you were coming,
I wanted to give you someplace you could really work in. Special ed. so often gets the leftovers. But that’s the beauty of this big, old building.” We climbed yet
flight of stairs. “Plenty of room.”

Bob’s school was a hybrid building, part old brick lump from 1910, part prefab extension tacked on in the 1960s to cope with the baby boomers. I was given a room on the top floor of the old building and Bob was good for his word, because it was a wonderful room, spacious with big windows and bright freshly painted yellow walls and a little cloakroom-type niche for storing outerwear and students’ things. Indeed, it was probably the nicest room I’d ever been assigned. The downside was that three flights of stairs and a corridor separated me from the nearest toilet. The gym, cafeteria, and front office were almost in another galaxy.

“You can arrange things the way you want,” Bob was saying as he walked among the small tables and chairs. “And Julie’s coming in this afternoon. Have you met Julie yet? She’ll be your teaching aide. What’s the current politically correct term? Paralegal? No, no … para-educator? I don’t remember. Anyway, she’s only going to be in here half days. Sadly. I couldn’t finagle you more. But you’ll like Julie. We’ve had her three years now. She comes in the mornings as a support person for a little boy of ours who has cerebral palsy, but he goes for physiotherapy in the afternoons. So once she has him onto his transport, she’s all yours.”

As Bob talked I was walking around the room, peering here and there. I paused to check the view from the windows.
That girl was still sitting on the wall. I regarded her. She looked lonely to me. She was the only child anywhere near the playground on this last day of summer vacation.

Bob said, “I’ll have your class list up for you this afternoon. The way we’ve arranged it, you’ll have five kids full-time. Then there’ll be about fifteen others who’ll come and go, depending on how much help they need. Sound good? What do you think?”

I smiled and nodded. “Sounds great to me.”

I was trying to shove a filing cabinet back out of the way when Julie arrived.

“Let me give you a hand with that,” she said cheerfully and grabbed hold of the other side. We wrestled it into the corner. “Bob told me you were hard at work up here. Are you getting on all right?”

“Yes, thank you,” I said.

She was a pretty girl – not a girl, really – she had to be older than she looked, but she was slightly built with delicate bones, pale, dewy skin, and clear green eyes. She had thick bangs and long, straight, reddish blonde hair, which was pulled back from her face in a sweet, schoolgirl style. Consequently, she appeared about fourteen.

“I’m looking forward to this,” she said, dusting off her hands. “I’ve been supporting Casey Muldrow since he was in first grade. He’s a super little kid, but I’m looking forward to something different.”

“If it’s ‘different’ you’re looking for, you’ve probably
lucked out,” I said and smiled. “I usually do a good line in ‘different.’” Picking up a frieze, I let it drop to its full length. “I was thinking of putting this up over there between the windows. Do you want to give me a hand?”

That’s when I saw the child again. She was still on top of the same wall, but now there was a woman standing beneath her, talking up to her.

“That little girl has been on that wall for about four hours,” I said. “She was there when I arrived this morning.”

Julie looked out the window. “Oh yeah. That’s Venus Fox. And that’s her wall. She’s always there.”


Julie shrugged. “That’s just Venus’s wall.”

“How does she get up there. It must be six feet high.”

“The kid’s like Spiderman. She can get over anything.”

“Is that her mom with her?” I asked.

“No, it’s her sister. Wanda. Wanda’s developmentally delayed.”

“She looks old to be the girl’s sister,” I said.

Julie shrugged again. “Late teens. She might be twenty. She used to be in special ed. at the high school, but she got too old. Now she seems to spend most of her time trailing around after Venus.”

“And Venus spends most of her time sitting on a wall. This family sounds promising.”

Julie raised her eyebrow in a knowing way. “There’s nine of them. Nine kids. Most of them have different fathers. I think
every single one has been in special ed. at one point or another.”

“Venus too?”

“Venus, definitely. Venus is
out to lunch.” Julie gave a little grin. “As you’ll get to find out for yourself soon enough. She’s going to be in here.”

“‘Way out to lunch’ how?” I asked.

“For one thing, she doesn’t talk.”

I rolled my eyes. “Surprise, surprise there.” When Julie looked blank, I added, “Elective mutism is my research specialty. In fact, I got my start on it when Bob and I were working together in a different program.”

“Yeah, well, this kid’s mute all right.”

“She won’t be in here.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Julie replied. “Venus doesn’t talk. I mean,
doesn’t talk
. Doesn’t say zip. Anywhere. To anyone.”

“She will in here.”

Julie’s smile was good-humored but faintly mocking. “Pride goeth before a fall.”

Chapter Two

s I ran my finger down the class list, I came to one I knew well. Billy Gomez. Aged nine, he was a small boy of Latino origin with an unruly thatch of black hair, a fondness for brightly colored shirts, and the grubbiest fingernails I’d ever seen on a kid. But while Billy was small, he was not puny. He had the sleek, sturdy musculature of a weasel and a fierce aggressiveness to match. Ruled by an explosive temper and a very bad mouth, he’d gotten kicked out of two previous schools. I’d worked extensively both with him and his teacher the year before, but I hadn’t been particularly successful. Billy still ranted, raved, and fought.

The other three boys I did not know. The fifth child, as Julie predicted, was Venus.

When I arrived the next morning, Venus was again up on her wall.

“Hello, Venus,” I said as I passed.

No response. She didn’t even turn her head in my direction.

I stopped and looked up. “Venus?”

There was not even the faintest muscle twitch to indicate she was aware of being spoken to.

“I’m your new teacher. Would you like to walk into the building with me?”

Her failure to respond was so complete that the first thing I thought was she must have a hearing loss. I made a mental note to check on what tests she had had. Waiting a few minutes longer, I finally gave up and went on into the school alone.

The first student to come into class was Billy. “Oh
! Not
!” he cried and smacked the center of his forehead with his palm. Hard. He almost fell backward with the blow. “Oh no. No, no, no. I don’t want to be in here. I don’t want

“Hi, Billy. I’m glad to see you too,” I said. “And guess what? You’re the first person here. So you get your pick of any table.”

“Then I pick the table in the cafeteria,” he said quickly and bolted for the door.

“Hey ho!” I snagged him by the collar. “Not literally
table. One in here.”

Billy slammed his things down on the nearest one. “I don’t want any of
tables,” he said gloomily. “I just want to get the fuck out of here.”

I put a finger to my lips. “Not in here, okay? You’re the oldest in here, so I need you to set a good example of how to talk. Do you think you can watch your tongue for me?”

Billy put his fingers into his mouth and grabbed hold of his tongue. “I’ll try,” he garbled around his fingers, “but I don’t think I can pull it out far enough for me to watch.”

“Billy, not literally.”

Billy laughed hysterically. So much so, in fact, he fell off his chair.

Just then Bob appeared, shepherding in two little boys with the most startlingly red hair I’d ever seen. It was
. Bright, copper penny red, worn in a floppy style over small, pointed faces that were generously splattered with raindrop-size freckles.

“This is Shane,” Bob said, putting a hand a little more firmly on the boy to his right. “And this is Zane.”

Shane and Zane? God, why did parents do this to their kids?

They were identical twins, dressed in what I can only describe as ventriloquist’s dummy style: polyester pants, striped shirts, and, quite incredibly, bow ties.

Billy was as amazed by their appearance as I was. “Are they Dalmatians?” he asked incredulously.

Before I could respond a heavyset African – American woman wearing a bright, flowery dress appeared and
pushed forward a slender, almost lanky-looking boy. “This here’s Jesse,” she said, keeping both hands on the boy’s thin shoulders. “This here’s Jesse’s classroom?”

Bob stepped aside, and the woman propelled the boy into the room. “You be good for Grandma. You be special for this here lady and Grandma’ll hear all the good things you done today.” She kissed him soundly on the side of the head. The boy flinched. Then she departed out the door.

“Here,” I said. “Do you want to take a chair here?”

The boy tossed his belongings down with an angry-sounding thud.

“Oh no, you don’t. Not here. You’re not sitting here,” Billy cried. “No ugly black kid’s going to sit here, because I’m sitting here. Teacher, you put him someplace else.”

“You want to fight about it?” Jesse replied, making a fist.

The boys lunged at each other right over the tabletop and went crashing to the floor. I leaped in, grabbing Billy by the collar and pushing Jesse aside.

Bob grinned with rather evil relish. “I see you have everything in hand, so I’ll leave you to it,” he said and vanished out the door.

“I’m not sitting with him. He’s crazy,” Billy said and grabbed his stuff from the table. “I’d rather sit with the Dalmatians. Come here, you guys. This here’s our table. That ugly kid can sit alone.”

I grabbed Billy’s shoulder again. “For now I think everyone’s going to sit alone. One person per table. You sit here. Zane? Are you Zane? You sit here. Jesse, there. Shane, over
here. Okay, these are your tables. And your chairs. So remember where they are, because I want your bottoms glued to those chairs unless you have permission to be somewhere else.”

“Glued on?” cried Billy and leaped up. “Where’s the glue?” He was over to the bookshelves already, rummaging through a basket. “Got to glue my bottom to that chair.”

“Billy, sit down.”

“But you said ‘glued on.’ I’m just doing what you said.”


With a cheerful smile, he sat. “We got whole tables to ourselves?” he said. “These are our tables?”

“Yes, those are your tables.”

“Wow,” he said and smoothed his hand over the wood surface. “Cool. My own table. Wonder where I’m going to put it when I get home.”


“Is there only going to be four of us in this here class?” Jesse asked.

Suddenly I remembered Venus. The bell had rung, and she wasn’t in the classroom.

I crossed to the window. Venus was still on the wall, but below her was Wanda, arms reaching up. Gently she lifted Venus down. I saw them approach the school building.

Wanda came all the way up to the classroom door with her sister. She was a big, ungainly girl, at least thirty pounds overweight, with bad acne and straggly hair. Her clothes were wrinkled, ill-fitting, and noticeably smelly.

“Hello,” I said.

“Her come inside now,” Wanda said in a cheerful manner. “Come on, beautiful child. Time to go to school.”

Venus looked up at me with a full, open gaze, making unabashed eye contact. I smiled at her. She didn’t smile back; she just stared.

“Here.” I offered my hand. “Shall I show you to your table?”

“Her no talk,” Wanda said.

“Thank you for your thoughts,” I replied, “but now it’s time for Venus to be in school.” I kept my hand outstretched to Venus. “Time to get started.”

“Her no come to school.”

“I don’t think you go to school, do you, Wanda? But Venus does. Come on, sweetheart. Time to find your seat.”

“Go on, beautiful child,” Wanda whispered and put her hands on Venus’s back. She pushed the child gently into the room.

“Good-bye, Wanda,” I said. “Thanks for bringing her. Do you want to say good-bye to Wanda, Venus? Shall we say, ‘See you after school, Wanda’?”

“Bye-bye, beautiful child,” Wanda said. Then she turned and ambled off.

“Beautiful child” was not the epithet I would have given Venus, now that I had a chance to look at her up close. She was neither clean nor well cared for. There was the dusky cast of worn-in dirt to her dark skin, and her long hair hung in matted tendrils, as if someone had tried to
make dreadlocks out of them and failed. Her clothes were too big and had food stains down the front. And like her sister, she smelled.

“Okay, sweetheart, you can sit in this chair.”

“How come you’re sitting her at the Dalmatian’s table?” Billy asked. “How come you don’t make her sit with that ugly black kid. You should put all the black kids together.”

“Actually, Billy, we don’t sort people by color in here, so I would prefer it if you stopped going on about it,” I replied. “I’d also prefer it if you’d stop saying ‘Dalmatian.’ He’s not a dog. He’s a boy and his name is Zane.”

“My name’s Shane,” the boy said in an annoyed tone. “And you shut up, stupid kid.”

“I’ll tell
who’s stupid!” Billy shouted angrily. “You want me to punch your lights out?”

Before I knew what was happening, Billy lunged at Shane.

But no quailing from Shane. He lunged back. “Yeah! I wanna beat your head in!” he shouted. “I’m gonna pound you to a bloody little zit on the sidewalk and then step on you!”

“Yeah!” Zane chimed in. “Me too!”

And I was thinking, Gosh, this is going to be a fun year.

I was pathetically glad to see Julie when she showed up at one o’clock. The morning had been nothing but one long fistfight. Shane and Zane, who were six, had arrived in the classroom with a diagnosis of FAS – fetal alcohol syndrome
– which is a condition that occurs in the unborn child when alcohol is overused in pregnancy. As a result, they both had the distinctive elflike physical features that characterize fetal alcohol syndrome, a borderline IQ, and serious behavioral problems, in particular, hyperactivity and attention deficit. Even this glum picture, however, was a rather inadequate description of these pint-size guerrillas. With their manic behavior, identical Howdy Doody faces, and weird, out-of-date clothes, they were like characters from some horror film come to life to terrorize the classroom.

Jesse, who was eight, had Tourette’s syndrome, which caused him to have several tics including spells of rapid eye blinking, head twitching, and sniffing, as if he had a runny nose, although he didn’t. In addition, he obsessively straightened things. He was particularly concerned about having his pencils and erasers laid out just so on his table, which was
a promising road to happiness in this class. The moment the others realized it mattered to him, they were intent on knocking his carefully aligned items around just to wind him up. Also not a good idea, I discovered quickly. His obsessiveness gave Jesse the initial impression of being a rather finicky, fastidious child. However, beneath this veneer was a kid with the mind-set of Darth Vader. Things
to be done his way. Death to anyone who refused.

Compared to these three, Billy seemed rather tame. He was just plain aggressive, a cocky live wire who was
willing to take on anyone and everyone, whether it made sense or not; a kid whose mouth was permanently in gear before his brain. Permanently in gear, period.

I’d been forced to more or less ignore Venus over the course of the morning because I was too busy breaking up fights among the boys. She didn’t appear to mind this inattention. Indeed, she didn’t actually appear to be alive most of the time. Plopped down in her chair at the table, she just sat, staring ahead of her. I’d offered some papers and crayons at one point. I’d offered a storybook. I’d offered a jigsaw puzzle. Admittedly, all this was done on the run, while chasing after one of the boys, and I’d had no time to sit down with her, but even so … Venus picked up whatever it was I’d given her and manipulated it back and forth in a sluggish, detached manner for a few moments without using it appropriately. Then, as soon as I turned away, she let it drop and resumed sitting motionlessly.

Once Julie arrived, I gave her the task of refereeing the boys and then took Venus aside. I wanted to get the measure of Venus’s silence immediately. I wasn’t sure yet if it was an elective behavior that she could control or whether it was some more serious physical problem that prevented her from speaking, but I knew from experience that if it was psychological, I needed to intervene before we developed a relationship based on silence.

“Come with me,” I said, moving to the far end of the room away from Julie and the boys.

Venus watched me in an open, direct way. She had good
eye contact, which I took as a positive sign. This made it less likely that autism was at the base of her silence.

“Here, come here. I want you to do something with me.”

Venus continued to watch me but didn’t move.

I returned to her table. “Come with me, please. We’re going to work together.” Putting a hand under her elbow, I brought her to her feet. Hand on her shoulder, I directed her to the far end of the room. “You sit there.” I indicated a chair.

Venus stood.

I put a hand on her head and pressed down. She sat. Pulling out the chair across the table from her, I sat down and lifted over a tub of crayons and a piece of paper.

“I’m going to tell you something very special,” I said. “A secret. Do you like secrets?”

She stared at me blankly.

I put on my most “special secret” voice and leaned toward her. “I wasn’t always a teacher. Know what I did? I worked with children who had a hard time speaking at school. Just like you!” Admittedly, this wasn’t such an exciting secret, but I tried to make it sound like something very special. “My job was to help them be able to talk again anytime they wanted.” I grinned. “What do you think about that? Would you like to start talking again?”

Venus kept her eyes on my face, her gaze never wavering, but it was a remarkably hooded gaze. I had no clue whatsoever as to what she might be thinking. Or even if she was thinking.

BOOK: Beautiful Child
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