The book begins with Torey reading a newspaper article about a six year old girl that had abducted, bound, and set fire to a three year old boy who survived but would never be the same. Little did she know that this six year old child would be in her special needs classroom in a months time while awaiting her court ordered hospital commitment.
Sheila enters the classroom and within the first day shows her anger and resistance to authority. During lunch, she captures the classroom goldfish one by one and gouges their eyes out with a pencil, then drops them on the floor to wriggle and die in front of 8 other severely handicapped, and mentally disturbed children. All hell breaks loose and with the other children screaming, Sheila bolts for the door. Torey ends up barricading her in the gym. They stare each other down until Sheila trusts that Torey won't beat her, and goes back to the classroom. Thus entering into an enduring relationship.
Torey is one of the most incredible examples of Christlike love I've ever read about. Sheila, who lives in a one room shack with her father, wears the same clothes every day and night, wets the bed, never bathes, and still, Torey scoops her up and holds the dirty, soiled child and offers her the first affection of her life. Torey becomes a mother figure to Sheila (who had been abandoned by her mother at age four, by being shoved out the door onto the highway). Torey recognizes a spark of genius within Sheila and she ends up testing her IQ which results concluded was 182, true genius.
The pain that Sheila goes through will break your heart, and also, the small bits of JOY will break your heart. Last night when I had concluded reading for the evening, although I am often in tears when I read, I did something I'd never done before. I went into Hannah's room, scooped her sleeping body up in my arms, and sobbed for a half hour. I promised her that I would never abandon her, that her daddy would never abandon her, that she would never have to worry about being too cold, or too hungry, that she would always know that we loved her no matter what and that no matter what she would know that she was a child of God.
Another part of the book that made me cry was Anton. Anton was a 29 year old migrant worker who spoke more Spanish than English who was assigned to be Torey's aid. She was fearful that this high school drop out who had never worked with children other than his own two boys would fail to accept the challenge of these children. Anton ends up being an angel who provided much support to Torey and each of the children in the class. At one point, he tells Torey in front of his beaming wife and sons that one day he was going to get his GED, then he would go to college and become a teacher. Torey smiles but realizes that this dream would probably never really come to fruition. After all, he too lived in a one room shack with his family who was barley surviving. He didn't understand the cost and the time that goes into an education.
As I researched 'where they are now' I came across this little quip about Anton: Anton is now in his early fifties. He is married and father of two grown sons. He gained first a bachelor's degree in education and latterly a master's degree in special education with emphasis on mental handicap. Anton has recently celebrated his 20th year of teaching. He currently lives in California where he works in a special education program for Hispanic migrant children.
This book left me extremely raw. The abuse that Sheila goes through both mentally, physically, and sexually makes it hard to recommend this book to just anyone. I would recommend it to any teacher, at any stage of their career. It is beautiful. It is Ugly. Mostly it is HONEST and REAL and I think that is what I found so humanly beautiful. It reminded me that we all go through pain, some pain runs deeper than anyone can comprehend. It reminded me that everyone needs love and affection and touching.
In case you were wondering about Sheila this is what I found out from Torey's blog:
Sheila is now in her thirties. She has moved from fast food into the restaurant business and seems to have quite an astute business mind. She remains single and shares her home with two dogs and two cats. Animal rights has become an important cause in her life and she devotes a considerable amount of free time to this work.
Sheila was asked to contribute a word to this page but she has declined. Her privacy is very important to her and she feels that she wants to do nothing to jeopardize her current life. However, she does extend greetings to everyone and thanks them for their interest and says to tell everyone she is now happy.