In March of this year, I began my first full-time teaching job. My teacher training comes strictly from being a writing tutor throughout college and from a one-month Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) program I took here in Costa Rica. While the TEFL program certainly prepared me for a lot, my first few months teaching have painfully shown me how much of an amateur I am. Some students have proven to be real challenges, and with a new school year on the horizon, I’m trying to learn as much as I can to enter September prepared.
Torey Hayden’s Somebody Else’s Kids is a true account of four misfit students with nowhere to go, winding up in Hayden’s resource classroom. A young boy with severe autism; a 7-year-old girl with a history of traumatic abuse having caused irreparable brain damage, leaving her unable to read; an angry 10-year-old boy with a tragic past, stuck in the foster care system; and a quiet 12-year-old girl, removed from her conservative Catholic school after becoming pregnant: the untouchables, the outcasts, the rejects – all Hayden’s students.
Her account of her year with these students is gripping; I whizzed through the book in four days. Hayden is a gifted writer, with a talent for vivid descriptions and storytelling. The way she describes her students is truly touching – you can feel the compassion she has for these kids leaking through the pages. Her descriptions of children with autism are for me particularly moving. She describes them as otherworldly, as if they are fairy children trapped, unable to properly express themselves in this dimension, in human bodies. She writes about the sort of wistful glow that children with autism often have, something I had never really noticed before – until now.
I was on the bus the other day when a young girl – maybe 5 or 6 years of age – climbed on, holding her grandmother’s hand behind her. Her light brown skin and dark curls contrasted perfectly with her bright pink dress. The girl’s glassy eyes surveyed the bus’ ceiling while her grandma paid the bus fare and her head cocked back and forth as if she was trying to hear something very quiet. I realized right away that she had autism. Hayden’s descriptions rang through my ears and I suddenly found the girl more beautiful, more dreamlike than I had ever considered a child, and I thought, maybe Hayden’s onto something with this whole fairy notion.
While most of the book is about her classroom and these four kids, she doesn’t shy away from writing about her personal life, or more specifically, how her job affects her personal life. I’ll admit, her account of her love life left me feeling frustrated, but hey, not my relationship. She also spends a good deal of time writing about the ever-present System and the people who she thinks represent it. Her battle with the pervasive that’s-just-the-way-things-are mentality is frustrating and forces one to really think about whether or not it’s possible for every student and every family to succeed in the current American public school system.
Although I really enjoyed the book, there were moments when I found Hayden’s recounts of conversations with her students a touch unbelievable. And maybe this is just what you do in a memoir, in storytelling, but at times I found myself thinking, wow, I wasn’t nearly this profound at 7. Also, I found Hayden herself to be a little self-congratulatory. She’s the first to admit when she’s not good at something or could have handled a situation better, but from time to time, a voice of arrogance creeps through, one I could’ve lived without.
Occasional dramatic flair aside, I highly recommend this book to anyone, not just teachers, as a means to potentially understand a world that you don’t come from. This unlikely classroom-turned-family seethes with compassion, empathy, and unconditional love, life tools we could all stand to sharpen ourselves, tools I plan to use as best as I can in my own classroom.