Authors: Torey Hayden
“R!” Tomaso shouted. “R?
The girl’s an idiot! Can’t you read or something? Look at it. That ain’t no R.”
“Tomaso, that wasn’t exactly the type of hint I had in mind. Maybe if you told her some words that began with that letter, that would help. That sort of hint.”
“R,” he giggled under his breath. “Shit.”
Lori regarded him angrily. “I’m not going to work anymore if he stays here,” she said to me.
Tomaso smiled. Or at least the closest thing I had seen to a smile thus far. Shaking his head, he chuckled. “You can’t read, can you?”
“Tomaso,” I said, “you know, that doesn’t go over in here, your putting people down. There aren’t many rules in this room but that’s one of them. You don’t put people down.”
“I’m not. Shit. I’m just stating a fact.”
“You are not!” Lori shouted. “You’re just trying to make me mad at you. Just like earlier. You like to have people hate you.”
“I do not. Just shut up before I smash your ratty little kisser in.”
“Hey, hey, hey, you two. Cool it,” I said.
Lori jumped out of her chair and stomped off across the room to stand near the animal cages. She flopped down on the floor after a moment.
“What did I do? What did I do?” Tomaso asked in a high-pitched, petulant voice. “What a fucking little baby. That’s all she is.”
Hopeless. If even Lori rejected this kid, what chance was there for him? Here was a loser. Wearily I got up and went over to Lori. I sat a moment and talked to her, leaving Boo and Tomaso on the far side of the room. Shortly, Boo came mincing over and plopped down beside us. Tomaso remained alone.
The afternoon wore on with excruciating slowness. Tomaso would not work and I was in no mood to push him. Lori remained angry. Boo might as well have been on another planet. At last I enticed Lori and Boo into working together on a plastic loom to make a hot pad. With them occupied, I went to have a private chat with Tomaso over some ground rules. I must have been giving off very heavy teacher vibes because when he saw me coming he got up and went over to the cupboard under the sink. Opening it up he climbed in and shut the doors behind him. I felt like kicking the door in but instead I went back and joined the others.
“When my father finds out they put me in this mean class, he’ll come get me out!” Tomaso hollered from his hideaway.
No one answered and that forced him to open one door.
“He’s gonna take me away. When he sees they put me in a foster home and now they got me in this fucking class, he’ll come take me to live with him.”
Lori looked over. There was a long moment of thought, and I could not tell what she was planning to do. She paused, looked back at the loom and chose a bright strand of yarn from the pile before looking back at Tomaso’s cubbyhole. “You know what,” she said, “I was in a foster home once.”
“I’m just in one ’til my father finds me.”
“Where’s he at?” she asked.
“In Texas. I told you that once already. Don’t you clean your ears or something?”
“How come he’s in Texas and not with you?”
“I guess he’s making money for me to live with him.”
“Oh,” Lori said. It was an odd conversation. The heated emotion from earlier was gone from her voice but there was still an edge to it I could not quite identify. She was on the floor with Boo and me about six feet away from where Tomaso lurked in his cupboard. She continued to work on the hot pad as she talked and did not look up. Tomaso remained under the sink.
“What were you put in a foster home for?” Tomaso asked her.
A pause. Lori brought up a hand and scratched the side of her head as she pondered over what color to use next. Without looking in Tomaso’s direction she shrugged. “I dunno. I guess they just got tired of having me.”
“Who? Your folks?”
A lot of shuffling and Tomaso emerged from the cupboard. He came to stand over us. “How’d you know? I mean, how’d you know they didn’t want you no more?”
Lori shrugged. “I just did.” Still she did not look up. She appeared deeply engrossed in weaving.
“Do you miss ’em?” Tomaso asked.
Another shrug. “I guess I do. I dunno. I got another family now.”
“Yeah,” Tomaso said. “So do I.”
He wandered off while we remained making our hot pad. Several minutes were spent in aimless movement back and forth. “Hey, Teacher, you got any tape?”
I told him where to find it. Locating it in my desk, he went to the worktable. I helped Boo pull his weaving tighter.
“Here.” Tomaso came back over. He dumped Lori’s work folder in her lap. “I taped it together. It don’t look so good but it was the best I could do.”
Lori regarded it, nodded and then set it beside her on the floor.
“Do you speak Spanish?” he asked her.
“You look like you might be Spanish. A little maybe. Real Spanish. Not Mexican.”
“I don’t think I am.” A pause. Lori looked over at me. “What is Spanish, anyway?”
“Shit! What an idiot!” Tomaso squealed. “Spain, dumbhead, Spain. That kind of Spanish.”
“Spain’s a place, Lor,” I said. “A country in Europe. Some people’s families come from there and that makes them Spanish.”
“I don’t think I’m Spanish,” she said. “I’m from Buffalo.”
Tomaso sat down next to us and picked up Lori’s taped-together folder. He studied it. Then he looked over at Lori. “You might be a little Spanish anyway. I can sort of tell that. I think you’re probably a little Spanish.”
or Tomaso and me it was not love at first sight. He proved no small challenge. Tomaso arrived on the second of November. The weeks following were traumatic. His moods fluctuated violently. One moment he would be calm and cooperative. The next he exploded into destruction. And always with us was that thinly disguised insecurity so noticeable on his first day. For me the hardest thing was withstanding his constant testing of the limits. The kid wanted to make me angry. In every way he could think of he worked on it, always to be followed by a taunting, “Now I bet you’re mad at me. Now I bet you hate me.” After a few days that statement alone was nearly self-fulfilling.
He badly disrupted the class by his arrival. The first week he refused to do any work. He would float around the periphery of the action and watch us, but I could not coerce him into sitting down and working. Unlike the years when I had taught in a self-contained classroom, I was not equipped to handle severe aggressive behavior. There was no tune-out or quiet space in the room because Boo and Lori never needed such measures. And in all practicality, I could not establish one for Tomaso because any interaction when he was angry quickly degenerated into a physical confrontation. With no aide, and the other children to take care of, I simply did not have the wherewithal to force Tomaso to remain in a timeout space. There were few other courses available. I refused to consider sending him to the principal for whacks. Beating him would hardly show him how to be less violent. Similarly, sending him home or to juvenile hall was not what I felt was dealing effectively with the problem. If ever a kid needed to be in school, it was Tomaso.
I settled on two approaches the first week. First, I let him float around the room uninvolved. Unlike Boo, he was not tuned out. He watched us; he occasionally joined us physically by sitting near us or talking to us. If he needed time to adjust, this was going to be it. I decided just to wait him out on the work issue. Second, I chose to control his violent outbursts in a physical manner. When Tomaso exploded and went off to destroy things or hurt people, I caught him in a tight, improvised bear-hug, his back to my chest, his arms pinned to his sides, and I hung on. Not an ideal solution, I suppose. That thought went through my mind every time I had to do it, and I cursed my inadequate facilities. But trial and error had brought me to the conclusion that a physical hold was what Tomaso needed to regain control. Forcing him to sit in a chair only escalated his anger. Ignored he would go from bad to worse. However, if I was quick and got a tight hold on him around the chest, he would calm down again. There would always be a moment of fighting, which I dreaded because he had not yet learned to fight fair, and if I was not careful, he would bite me or mash my toes or elbow me in the breasts. But the struggling against my arms would always cease; then slowly I would feel the tension trickle out of him and I could let go.
The help I had not counted on came from Lori. It was unintentional, I suspect, because Lori was bent out of shape for several days after Tomaso’s arrival. She, too, went through a few days of refusing to work. I think she did not want to expose any weaknesses to Tomaso. Yet, there was an attraction between them. It was subtle and mostly from Tomaso’s side, but I could feel it. From the first day when Tomaso repaired Lori’s work folder after destroying it, he continued to show her a low-keyed deference. Perhaps it was because she refused to be frightened of him and all his bluster. Perhaps it was because they had shared some similar experiences and Lori, in her characteristic manner, was willing to tell him about hers. Or maybe it was no more than that Lori, with her long, dark hair, really did look a little Spanish. I never knew. Lori, for her part, could not remain angry long. When it became apparent that Tomaso was not going to go away, she accepted him. This seemed to calm Tomaso. A pecking order was established in which I had no part. In small ways he tried to initiate friendship with her – sitting near her at the table, listening raptly when she talked, helping her with her work without too many provocative comments. I was thankful to see that people still mattered to this angry boy.
While Tomaso’s constant testing of the limits and deep rage were difficult to contend with, I found those nothing compared with some of his other behavior. The kid figured out quickly that destructiveness and violence were not going to make me lose my composure. But they were not the only tricks up his sleeve. I finally decided he must have researched a book somewhere along the line on how to drive teachers crazy. He knew every angle.
One of his most effective weapons was his ability to pass wind. To me it seemed he could do it at any time he chose and at any decibel level. Up on one buttock he would rise and aim so that his victim received full benefit of the smell and sound. “It must have been the beans I ate,” he would always say sweetly. My gosh, this kid had to be eating beans morning, noon and night to accomplish what he was capable of. I am sure that if sheet music were available, he could have farted “The Star Spangled Banner.” The crowning touch involved pulling his pants out in back and sticking a hand down to feel. God only knows what he was checking. I never asked. In fact I tried my best to ignore the entire business: For that kind of behavior, inattention seemed the soundest recourse. However, with Tomaso it was not that simple. If the first or second or twelfth fart did not get a rise out of me, he would jump up from his seat and wave a hand in front of his face. “Whew, boy! That smelled baaaaad! I really cut the cheese that time, huh? Whew. I can’t sit here anymore. I need a new chair.” Then he would turn around to get out of his chair and fart right in my face. And of course, there was Lori. While I did my best to ignore Tomaso, Lori could not always do so. If he persisted long enough, he always found an audience.
Farting, unfortunately, was not Tomaso’s only Driving-Teacher-Nuts tactic. He had plenty more. The most devastating for me personally was his mouthwash campaign.
“Whewie,” he cried one day when I sat down next to him at the table. He fanned the air in front of his face with one hand. “You got
Mortally embarrassed, I immediately thought over what I had had for lunch. At recess I sneaked off for a quick chew of gum in the teachers’ lounge.
Next day. A revolted look. “Boy, lady, don’t you ever use a mouthwash?
This went on for better than a week and I became positively paranoid. I brought a toothbrush to school and brushed after lunch. Next came a bottle of Scope. Not strong enough. A bottle of Listerine took up residence in the coat closet with my lunch box, comb, adhesive bandages and aspirin. Every day I would breathe into a cupped hand before class to see how my breath smelled. I even considered making an appointment with my dentist. And of course this all had vast effect on the remainder of my life. I began talking to people with my hand to my mouth because I figured if I was offending a brash boy like Tomaso, I was bothering everyone and they were just too polite to tell me. Joe and I got into one of the worst arguments we ever had when I refused to make the garlicky aïoli for a dinner party.
Not until much later did I get wise. Dan Marshall had come into the room one day and was strolling among the kids. He leaned over Tomaso to see what he was doing.
“Hoo-ee, you got halitosis,” Tomaso said.
Dan straightened up abruptly, his face turning red.
“You know what that is, mister? That’s bad breath.”
From then on I was suspicious. Tomaso, however, did not give up easily. Once he’d figured out that I no longer fell for the bad-breath trick, he had to become more creative.
We were all together at the worktable making Thanksgiving decorations one afternoon. Tomaso was sitting next to me. He sat back and put his scissors down. Slowly he took several deep, evaluative snorts of air. Then he turned to me. “You know what you need, Torey?”