Over thirty years ago teacher and therapist Torey Hayden started sharing her remarkable experiences in classrooms and clinics with emotionally disturbed children. Some of these children were horribly abused, neglected, or traumatized by violence; some had learning differences; others were autistic or were electively mute (when someone is capable of speech but chooses not to speak), but all of them needed someone who could help them with the process of putting their lives back together. Their stories will haunt you…their courage will amaze you.
Starting with the publication of One Child in 1980 and continuing on to Twilight Children, Hayden writes powerfully and sensitively of her work with these children. Her books aren’t saccharine tales of “shattered lives redeemed by love” (although that case could be made), rather they are full of the gritty details of working with children who can be obnoxious, manipulative, violent, and many times work very hard at being unlovable. Nor are her books depressing tomes of desperate lives in grim circumstances: there is a lot of humor (painted rabbit poop used in an Easter mosaic comes to mind), and, whatever disability they may have, these are stories about children who, like all children, can be charming and unintentionally funny. Hayden is also refreshingly candid about her own shortcomings – she did make mistakes, she would have done some things differently – all of which make her seem very human.
All of Torey Hayden’s nonfiction books are still in print (and owned by TSCPL!) – a testament not only to the inherent drama of these children’s’ lives but also to Hayden’s extraordinary skills as a writer. The titles are listed in order of publication, but they can be read in any order.
One of the indelible images from One Child is of grimy, overall-clad, six-year-old Sheila gouging the eyes out of the classroom goldfish with a pencil. Placed temporarily in Torey’s classroom until there was an opening the state hospital (court ordered because Sheila tied up a three-year-old and set him on fire), Torey discovers that this disturbed little girl is also a genius. This is a pure and powerful story of a few transformative months shared between a young teacher and her student.
Some of Torey’s most endearing students are in Somebody Else’s Kids: brash Tomaso, who witnessed his father’s murder; Lori, who struggles to learn to read; Claudia, an unhappy pregnant twelve-year-old; and autistic Boo. Somehow this disparate group becomes a warm and nurturing class where all of them grow emotionally. The epilogue is guaranteed to choke you up.
Murphy’s Boy, a personal favorite, doesn’t take place in a school, but rather at an institution where 15-year-old Kevin has aged out of the home and needs another place to go – problematic since he is an elective mute with numerous, paralyzing fears. Torey, now a therapist in a private clinic, works with “Zoo Boy” and uncovers the angry, intelligent, artistic boy who was horribly abused by his stepfather and further victimized by Social Services.
Beautiful, rich, and brilliant, but also inarticulate and a substance abuser, Ladbrooke, mother of one of Torey’s students, is the eponymous heroine of Just Another Kid. The story does take place in a classroom with another motley assortment of emotionally disturbed children, including a trio of traumatized children from Northern Ireland, but the real story is Torey’s relationship as informal therapist and friend to Ladbrooke, who really does need Torey’s help just as much as her students.
The small town of Peking has many secrets – could one of them be satanic ritual abuse? In Ghost Girl, one of Torey’s students is Jadie, an elective mute who walks hunched over, draws bizarre pictures, and speaks disturbingly (when Torey is able to get her to speak) of a friend being murdered by “J.R.” and “Miss Ellie”. A creepy story best read in the light of day with lots of people around, this is possibly Hayden’s most disturbing book.
Sadly, “happily ever after” exists only in fairy tales and the sequel to One Child is no exception. In The Tiger’s Child, the intelligent and appealing child that Torey remembers is now an orange-haired adolescent with a very big chip on her shoulder. Torey and Sheila must deal with differing perceptions of their time together in the classroom and work together to form a new, more equal, relationship.
Venus would hardly seem to be A Beautiful Child: mute, resistant to all friendly overtures, prone to running away, unkempt and neglected at home, she is one of Torey’s most challenging students. In contrast to Venus’s silence, her other students are a wild group of mostly boys who would much rather fight than learn anything. How Torey teaches these vastly different students and works with an aid who is philosophically opposed to Torey’s methods makes for a very interesting school year!
Twilight Children has a different tone from Hayden’s other books – quieter, more reflective, with very little about Torey’s personal life. The children this time are in a locked hospital ward: Cassandra, a victim of sexual abuse who evades Torey’s best attempts to help her; and Drake, a beautiful, charming little boy whose muteness baffles Torey. There are also poignant encounters with Gerda, an elderly stroke victim, who gradually shares her childhood memories.
Also worth getting through Interlibrary Loan or a used bookstore since it is sadly out of print is Hayden’s adult novel, Sunflower Forest. Out on the plains of western Kansas, seventeen-year-old Lesley has always found her Hungarian mother Mara to be embarrassingly different. While Lesley struggles with the anguish of her first love and plans for her future, Mara’s mental health deteriorates and Lesley finally learns the shocking truth of her mother’s experiences in World War II.