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The article in the newspaper was tiny, considering the crime. It told of a six-year-old girl who had lured a local toddler from his yard, taken him to a nearby woodland, tied him to a tree and set fire to him. The boy, badly burned, was in hospital. All that was said in what amounted to no more than a space filler below the comic strips on page six. I read it and, repulsed, I turned the page and went on.
Six weeks later, Ed, the special education director, phoned me. It was early January, the day we were returning from our Christmas break. "There's going to be anew girl in your class. Remember that little girl who set fire to the kid in November . . . ?"
I taught what was affectionately referred to in our district as the "garbage class." It was the last year before congressional law, would introduce "mainstreaming," the requirement that all special needs children be educated in the least restrictive environment; and thus, our district still had the myriad of small special education classrooms, each catering to a different disability. There were classes for physically handicapped, for mentally handicapped, for behaviorally disordered, for visually impaired ... you name it, we had it. My eight were the kids left over, the ones who defied classification. AH of them suffered emotional disorders, but most also had mental or physical disabilities as well. Out of the three girls and five boys in the group, three could not talk, one could but refused and another spoke only in echoes of other people's words. Three of them were still in diapers and two more had regular accidents. As I had the full number of children allowed by state law for a class of severely handicappedchildren, I was given an aide at the start of the year; but mine hadn't turned out to be one of the bright, hardworking aides already employed by the school, as I had expected. Mine was a Mexican-American migrant worker named Anton, who had been trawled from the local welfare list. He'd never graduated from high school, never even stayed north all winter before, and certainly had never changed diapers on a sevenyear-old. My only other help came from Whitney, a fourteen-year-old junior high student, who gave up her study halls to volunteer in our class.
By all accounts we didn't appear a very promising group, and in the beginning, chaos was the byword; however, as the months passed, we metamorphosed. Anton proved to be sensitive and hardworking, his dedication to the children becoming apparent within the first weeks. The kids, in return, responded well to having a man in the classroom and they built on one another's strengths. Whitney's youth occasionally made her more like one of the children than one of the staff, but her enthusiasm was contagious, making it easier for all of us to view events as adventures rather than the disasters they often were. The kids grew and changed, and by Christmas we had become a cohesive little group. Now Ed was sending me a six-year-old stick of dynamite.
Her name was Sheila. The next Monday she arrived, being dragged into my classroom by Ed, as my principal worriedly brought up the rear, his hands flapping behind her as if to fan her into the classroom. She was absolutely tiny, with fierce eyes, long, matted blond hair and a very bad smell. I was shocked to find she was so small. Given her notoriety, I had expected something considerably more Herculean. As it was, she couldn't have been much bigger than the three-year-old she had abducted.
Abducted? I regarded her carefully.
Bureaucracy being what it is in school districts, Sheila'sschool files didn't arrive before she did; so when she went off to lunch on that first day, Anton and I took the opportunity to go down to the office for a quick look. The file made bleak reading, even by the standards of my class.
Our town, Marysville, was in proximity to a large mental hospital and a state penitentiary, and this, in addition to the migrants, had created a disproportionate underclass, many of whom lived in appalling poverty. The buildings in the migrant camp had been built as temporary summer housing and many were literally nothing but wood and tar paper that lacked even the most basic amenities, but they became crowded in the winter by those who could afford nothing better. It was here that Sheila lived with her father.
A drug addict with alcohol problems, her father had spent most of Sheila's early years in and out of prison. He had no job. Currently on parole, he was attending an alcohol abuse program, but doing little else.
Sheila's mother had been only fourteen when, as a runaway, she took up with Sheila's father and became pregnant. Sheila was bom two days before her mother's fifteenth birthday. A second child, a son, was born nineteen months later. There wasn't much else relating to the mother in the file, although it was not hard to read drugs, alcohol and domestic violence between the lines. Whatever, she must have finally had enough, because when Sheila was four, she left the family. From the brief notes, it appeared that she had intended to take both children with her, but Sheila was later found abandoned on an open stretch of freeway about thirty miles south of town. Sheila's mother and her brother, Jimmie, were never heard from again.
The bulk of the file detailed Sheila's behavior. At home the father appeared to have no control over her at all. She had been repeatedly found wandering around the migrant camp late at night. She had a history of fire setting and had been cited for criminal damage three times by the local police, quite an accomplishment for a six-year-old. At school, Sheila often refused to speak, and as a consequence, virtually nothing was contained in the file to tell me what or how much she might have learned. She had been in kindergarten and then first grade in an elementary school . . .