We sit in a tiny room that likely used to be a storage closet in a converted former dentist’s office. It’s a small, aging, wooden, two-story building. There’s something hollow and vaguely impermanent feeling about the school. It’s as though the wood in the floors is thin enough that with a strong enough kick and a heavy enough work boot, you could kick a hole right through the floor. My classroom is upstairs near the emergency exit that the kids leave through on the way to PE. The PE teacher often pokes his head in to say hello on his way out to the vans to take the kids to play basketball or whatever it is they’re currently doing. He does not interrupt though when I am working with Damien and Dion since they’re Little-Kids and more easily distractible. If I were working with Big-Kids, he’d probably lean in and heckle them with friendly eyes which would both embarrass and flatter them.
Damien and Dion rush in, excited for their time away from the larger group of kids. Damien and Dion come to me for reading every other day. At eight, neither has mastered any basic letter-sound relationships that many preschoolers have. They chatter away and I half-listen, waiting for the thunder of teenaged feet on an insubstantial floor to subside before beginning our lesson. Their excitement is contagious but as the last of the foot traffic lets up, Damien and Dion settle in. They want to learn. They haven’t yet learned to be ashamed of the fact that they cannot read the word “cat,” yet. Instead, they are hopeful. They are desperate for adult attention: like toddlers in their need. My room consists of four wooden desks that are at least fifteen or twenty years old. They are the slanted wooden variety that have seats attached, with a metal compartment under the wooden top to store books. They’re the same kind I peeled my thighs from on September days in elementary school. The compartments are empty and the metal is a good surface for banging out a rhythm with a pen and the heel of an older boy’s hand. Damien spindles his long, skinny, ashy knees into the desk and Dion follows. They sit up on their knees, changing positions frequently. I get out the flashcards we always start with and we begin.
I hold up a card then another and another, and in unison they say “A, ah, apple. B, buh, ball. C, kuh, car.” We go through the alphabet, then I mix the letters up and we go through it again, out of order. The vowels give them some trouble so we go through those again. “E, eh, egg.”
I want to make them eggs, but I don’t know if there are enough. Cereal doesn’t get you through much of the morning, and I want the boys to have a good morning at school. School should be a bigger priority than it can be for these boys. My values vie for position in the chaos of all their needs.
The house sits in the suburbs south of Saint Louis. Built in the 80s there are ranch style homes and well-dressed teenagers walk to school on crackfree sidewalks. I sit in the dark of the house, ticking off the minutes, watching bad tv, eating junk, thinking of the day and preparations. Mentally I go through what needs to be done: preheat the oven, make up a tray of toast, a tray of bacon, get mismatched bowls and spoons out for cereal, set the table. Then I move farther into my day and what I need to do for classes: copies, grading, mentally remembering what lessons I’ll be teaching. I realize I’m ahead of myself, stop, and look around the spacious kitchen with the Formica island in the middle and the eighties style oak cabinets, the burnt orange stove and matching refrigerator. I get out the bread and prepare the tray. Whatever I can get done now will help once the boys are up. Once they’re up, it will be GO-time. I’m excited to wake the boys. I never work in the little kid’s house and can’t wait to see them in their jammies, excited surprise in their faces to see me instead of their regular staff. 4:45 am. Time to do a bed check.
I am in the basement where all the boys are sleeping in one of two rooms. The basement’s dingy in a way that is difficult to pinpoint. The paint is new but the furniture’s second hand. The toys are too orderly. There’s tape on the floor that delineates staff-only areas like the desk that sits facing what would otherwise be a family room vs. everywhere else. It’s still dark so I bring the flashlight. The smell of moldy boy-sweat vaguely settles in the ground. I start with Andrew. I punch the power button with my thumb before I go through the already open door, gradually introducing light to the room. Andrew’s crumpled up in his wood-framed twin and I can’t see his face, but his hair will do fine in confirming he’s there. Damien’s bed is in the middle and he has tossed his blankets to the floor and lies mouth open, snoring lightly, on his back with limbs thrown out to the four winds. Dion is sleeping on his stomach and the bit of his face that is visible looks peaceful and serene. A mother would be tempted to lean over and kiss his perfectly smooth caramel cheek, but wouldn’t want to disturb him. Stephen has twisted himself up and I have to pry a little to be sure there’s really a body in the bed. There is and thankfully he doesn’t wake, so I go back to the desk and tick off the boxes on the bed check grid for this fifteen minutes until I have to do it again in another fifteen.
At the school, I pull kids out of class and try intensive interventions to get them closer to grade level in reading, writing, and math. This is what I was trained to do. What I was born to do. But it doesn’t pay much and unlike other teaching jobs, you are not off in the summer and so the possibility of an extra summer job to help pay off college loans does not exist. Instead, I sometimes pick up half of an overnight here or there to help pay the bills. It helps develop relationships with the boys and with the staff that work with them in the houses. Otherwise, there’s a school staff setup and a home staff setup and if they don’t communicate well, it impacts the therapeutic value of being a place like this. It seems unjust that any child should end up in a place like this, so it seems a duty of the staff to be sure it’s worthwhile for the kids. I usually work at Yarrow or Estes, the houses for the older boys. I take them for hikes or running and spice up their meals with things I find in cupboards long forgotten: cumin, sage, curry. The little kids are another story. I’m less comfortable with them, more hurt by their stories.
Damien’s story is particularly horrible. It takes me multiple sessions to read his entire file. His skull was fractured in three places when he was just thirteen months old. He has been sexually abused by so many family members, I have not committed the number or the names to memory. He has sexually abused his own cousins. After all, that’s what a relationship is. His parents’ rights have been terminated which means he is alone in the world at the ripe age of eight. When I was eight, I got the chicken pox and my mom cried that I would have to miss the school Valentine’s Day party. She bought me a pound puppy and I scratched away at home in front of cartoons, hugging my new-smelling soft brown spotted comfort. Damien has no mom or dad to feel bad for him for the things that hurt a child. He has a rotating series of staff who look out for him and give him “side hugs” when he needs attention. It’s one thing to be on your own at fourteen and fifteen, it’s another at eight. At eight, you should still be able to crawl in with your parents and snuggle on a Saturday morning. Not get bullshit “side hugs,” and spend your illnesses on a cot in the lunchroom because there’s no one at the house to take care of you. It helps to keep his skull fracture in mind when I’m frustrated by the slow pace of our reading sessions. He is learning so I focus on that and enthusiastically encourage him at every success.
Dion and Damien have fallen into a routine in the classroom. They come in and chat for a few minutes, then get to work. They go through the letter flash cards. Then we work on hearing syllables in words by karate chopping them in the air. Da-mi-en. Chop, chop, chop! Damien chops and kicks his spidery limbs out, nearly spastically. He has big pink gums and even bigger, mismatched teeth. He often takes his glasses off to rub his eyes when he’s getting tired from trying so hard, revealing, large, pooling dark eyes rimmed with thick, dark, curled lashes. He has a Stevie Wonder head-tilt when he smiles that makes him look a bit off. He’s been smiling often lately as he and Dion have started being able to read words. Whole real words in books! They’re getting competitive now and I can feel something maternal in the air. Their competition for the correct answer is becoming a sibling rivalry. I can feel instinct kicking in and I’m not always sure what to do with it. I know I am their teacher. I know they need to learn to read and that the success I’m having with them means I’m the best person to be doing it. But… the desire to nurture them is strong when they burst through the door in the morning.
That instinct is strong now as I check the time, 5:59. The time to wake them creeps closer and I do my last bed check before wakeups start at 6:15.
I feel that itchy, twitchy feeling of having been awake most of the night. It’s not a tired feeling. It’s an adrenal-fueled state that tricks you into eating more than you need and talking more than you want.
The boys are, indeed, excited to see me and they follow most directions. Eager to please, they get dressed, take turns going to the bathroom, keep safe ratios in their rooms without being reminded, and make their beds without too many promptings. We go upstairs and have breakfast when the excitement and change in routine begins to show. Dion gets angry when he spills his orange juice. The boys try to encourage him, but he doesn’t do well with change. He asks to go spend time alone in the timeout room and I agree. He leaves the spilled juice and speedwalks down the pictureless hallway to the back room. If a family lived here, this would be a bedroom. As it is, the room is completely bare. Painted beige, wood closet doors removed, tile floors scuffed. We listen to Dion screaming and yelling and kicking the wall. He seems to be working himself up instead of calming himself down. So, since the boys are cooperating and eating ok, I tell them I’ll be right back and walk down the beige carpeted hallway to check on Dion.
Before he’s seen me, he’s heard me.
“FUCK YOU.” He screams.
I say nothing, and turn to go back down the hallway and try to let his rage peter out, rather than engage in a power struggle, but he follows after me.
He pushes my leg “FUCK YOU.” He tilts his chin down as he repeats it, his eyebrows scrunched together in anger neither of us fully understand.
“Dion, why don’t you use one of your coping skills so you can keep having a good morning, ok?” I say calmly. It’s too late, and I’ve engaged him now. His anger is fueled. Whatever trauma this relates to is about to play out.
“I care about you and want to see you have a good morning, Dion. Do you think it will help if we try to call Angela?” I ask. I’m tired and it’s all I can think of. His therapist will probably not appreciate the interruption but I’m the only staff for at least another 30 minutes and there are four other boys I need to keep calm. I do not want to end up in a restraint.
He balls up his fists and I see his silver fillings shine as he literally growls, about to hit me. I head back toward the timeout room but he doesn’t follow. He tips over a chair where the other boys are still finishing up breakfast and I tell him I’m going to take him to the timeout room so he can be safe. I begin semi forcibly escorting him back to the room. I can tell where this is leading and that the audience of his peers will only make things worse.
In the timeout room, a restraint ensues. The boys, who are confused about when they are boys and when they are too-young, parentless men, continue to creep down the hall to check on me and make sure I’m ok. Damien begins checking often and yelling at Dion.
“You better leave her alone, or I’m gonna kick your booty!” Damien yells.
“Go back with the other boys, please Damien. I’m fine. Trust me to handle this, please.”
Thankfully, Dion’s emotions have run their course and he begins to calm down now just as his therapist is returning the page. I have the boys pass the phone around waiting for the time when Dion is ready to talk to her. She is the therapist for most of the boys in this group. As Dion leaves the room to clean up his juice and talk to his therapist, Damien comes in. Damien pushes Dion and I give him a disapproving look. A maniacal smile spreads and he says “What bitch?”
My heart sinks. Dion’s restraint has set him off and he’s reacting. He wants the power so he can fix it, or at least be in control. Dion is barely out the door, guilty, self-loathing tears coming down his face as I tell the boys in a voice that absolutely means business, “Stay out of here and talk to Angela. I’ll be out of here as soon as I can.” I barely finish before Damien punches me in the crotch. He’s in the time out room now and I try not to engage him, turning my body so that we are not face to face. I try not to be threatening in any way.
“I know what happened with Dion really upset you, Damien, but everyone’s safe now. Why don’t you take some deep breaths to calm down.” I take a deep breath, hoping he’ll match my breath. It won’t hurt either of us to do some deep breathing right now.
“That’s not what you want.” He says in a mock-seductive voice. He has a speech impediment and it comes out as he emphasizes his words, cocking his hip to the side and saying, “You wanna fuck me!” He starts taking his pants off and swings them in a circle like a lasso and throws them at me. I move and there is a boy in the hallway.
“Are you ok, Miss?”
“Of course, honey. I just need you guys to keep doing a good job following directions, and being safe in the living room. Why don’t you turn on a cartoon and keep talking to Miss Angela. Let her know what’s going on and another staff will be here soon.”
I pray for staff to be early so I can switch out. I’m setting Damien off but I can’t figure out what to do about it. I can’t let him go out and attack the other kids, which he is likely to do if I move from the doorway, but if I block him, he will chose the power struggle and I’ll be stuck in a restraint. He’s clearly remembering some sexual abuse so I really don’t want that either. I opt to continue to stand in the doorway and protect the other kids, but turn my back hoping it will be less engaging. He strips the rest of his clothes off and runs into me punching me repeatedly in the butt.
“You like it in the butt, bitch? Yeah, you know you want that!”
“I’m sorry if someone said that to you, Damien, but I don’t want anything like that from you.” I say and protect myself as best as I can. I move away from his next attack and he goes for the door. I grab him and put him in a restraint against the wall. I feel his skinny, ropey muscles tighten and then go completely slack. He slides to the floor (contrary to my training,) and I let him go. Before I can get away, he uppercuts me in the crotch.
“I’ll punch you in that pussy, bitch!” spit foams in the back of his mouth on the “ch” sound and spills out of his clenched teeth as he repeats more past trauma about bitches, asses, and fucking.
We go round and round. I try not to engage him, but he has more experience in this dynamic than I do and finds ways. He knows he can go for his peers and I can’t let him. He tries every vile thing he can think of to get my attention. He dances rhythmically in his tiny body, grabbing his penis in a gesture that is not eight years old. Bends over and shows his tiny bottom. Makes kissing noises. Laughs, then charges me again, punching at my crotch and falling to the ground. I end up in restraint after restraint with him. I hold him, myself terrified, knowing I’m probably retraumatizing this child, but not sure what else to do to keep the other kids safe from him. His arms are pinned around his front, left elbow locked under right, with his body in the corner and my hip turned into him. I do not speak until his breathing slows. He pretends to calm down, I tell him to take three deep breaths. He does. I tell him I’m going to let go of his left arm. I do. He falls to the ground and laughs. We start all over.
Staff is late and I’m beginning to panic. I’m slick with sweat and exhausted. I’m shaking from the strain and my arms don’t seem like they have the strength for another hold. I don’t think I can continue to do this for too much longer but don’t know what else to do. I call to one of the boys to ask Angela to get someone to come in. She does her best to reach someone at the school.
I check my watch. We’ve been at it for over forty five minutes now and he’s not calming down at all. He does not exhaust as easily as I do. We go another twenty five minutes with him punching me, attempting to seduce me/reliving his past, and me avoiding a restraint, then doing one, then letting go, then right back in.
Three people arrive at the same time and a trusted coworker from the school, Dave, comes back to take over. My clothes are soaked in sweat and my whole body shakes. Release is imminent. I go out to help the boys get off to school. I want their day to go well. I know they’ve been worried for me and afraid of what’s going on. It’s upsetting for small children and they are. Dion throws himself into my arms and I let him give me a real hug. I’m not sure if it’s for me or for him.
“Don’t worry, Dion. I’m ok.”
He’s nearly crying. “I’m sorry.”
“Hey, this isn’t your fault. You guys did great. You stayed calm. You stayed safe. I’m proud of you. You did exactly what you were supposed to do.”
They still look unsure so I add, “This is my job you guys. We’re all ok. We’ll talk about it at school today, ok?”
They are quiet and compliant. They get in the van and go to school. I clean up the kitchen and drive my own car to the school. I sit down in a scavenged chair at the long table in the teacher’s lounge. I rest my head in my hands trying to collect myself before class. I hear Damien and keep it together.
“Go on downstairs to your classroom.” He tells Damien softly. I strain, don’t hear anything, so he must have worn himself out and gone down.
Dave sits down next to me and waits a minute and asks if I’m ok. I realize there is no way I will teach reading in five minutes. I fight back tears and ask if someone can call our boss and see if they can cover my classes for a little while so that I can collect myself. Dave tells me he’ll take care of it and I walk out. I drive to the grocery store around the corner and pick up donuts and fruit. I go back to the lounge and stuff and swallow my way through avoiding crying. It doesn’t work. Dave comes in and the tears pool, spill out.
Images of the things Damien said and did an hour ago come in waves. The glimpse I got of his trauma is overwhelming. At his age, I thought sex was two naked people rubbing up against each other. And I’d always thought that knowledge had been advanced.
“I just can’t believe that he had to live that way. That was his reality. This is my job. I take breaks and sit in here and eat donuts and at the end of the day go back to my life. That is his life.”
That afternoon the clinical team decides Damien’s attachment disorder and previous sexual abuse is being triggered by the closeness of our reading classes. He had gotten close enough with me that the next natural step, to him, was for things to turn sexual. He had literally never had a relationship with a caring adult that was not sexual. I was not the first staff he had done this with. A few days later he had to change therapists after becoming too sexualized around Angela. Two weeks after that he was hospitalized.
When he returned, the shine was drugged out of his eyes, and the mania was gone from his laugh. His reading classes never resumed.