The first time I heard Dooney’s name was in the teachers’ room. A colleague was talking about a well-behaved and well-cared-for little boy in her kindergarten class who had recently become unkempt and very unhappy. The next fall, Dooney appeared in my class, a sad boy wearing dirty clothes. He walked around the room with downcast eyes, his chin on his chest, always sucking his thumb. It was obvious that there was a problem at home, and I knew I had to find out what it was.
Although my students said little about their lives away from school, the older children were telling their teachers how afraid they were to go home because of the drug violence in their neighborhood. So one day I sat in my rocking chair and called my 6-year-olds to sit around me on the rug. I told them what I had heard about drugs and shootings in their neighborhood and that I knew how scared and very unhappy they must feel. Now was a time, I said, when they could talk about the problem and say whatever they were feeling.
At first, I was shocked at what I heard, and then I became more and more sad and angry: angry because these children, through no fault of their own, were being exposed to horrific violence, death, and neglect; sad because they were not being nurtured or even cared for by their drug-addicted parents. These children were not carefree enough to play outdoors, explore the world, or enjoy friendships.
From what Dooney told me, it appeared his mother was so heavily addicted that he was responsible for his own well-being. It was amazing to me that he even got up and arrived at school each day. When I asked Dooney how he did it, he smiled and pointed to his head. He told me that when it was light outside, he knew it was time to get ready for school. School was his salvation and only hope.
Getting help for Dooney was frustratingly difficult. A caseworker from the county’s protective services informed me that because of the huge number of cases—many much worse than Dooney’s—it would be months or even years before they could remove Dooney from his mother’s custody. The school would have to help him as much as possible.
I tried—we all tried—to help Dooney and the others like him, but it was hard not to feel overwhelmed and inadequate. To cope, we attended eight weekly sessions before school, where we discussed our feelings and got advice and support from social-service workers, former crack addicts, drug counselors, and others. They told us to keep at it, do our best, and accept the fact that our efforts might not be enough.
Dooney’s and the others’ needs affected my teaching. I tried to stick to my curriculum, but I found that more time had to be devoted to listening to and caring for the children, especially first thing in the morning. So many problems had to be addressed before teaching could really begin. I had to put bandages on sores and find gloves for those who had none on cold mornings. I had to talk with kids about fights at the bus stop or on the playground and search for scarce school supplies.
Hugs and kisses became an essential part of settling the children down and getting the day started. Dooney demanded and received a large supply of both. Sometimes, starved for affection, he would cling to me, afraid to let go. He always tried to sit beside me in the cafeteria at lunch time and became upset if someone beat him to the seat.
He always ate everything in sight. I soon learned that he was not getting any dinner at night or eating on the weekends, so we devised a plan for Dooney to have some leftover food from the school’s free-lunch program sent home with him on Fridays for the weekend. During the week, food was sent home in his book bag. Arrangements were made with a neighborhood family to cook hot meals for him during the winter months.
Then I learned his mother and other adults were taking the food away from him.
I was furious. How could adults take food from a child? I began telling Dooney to hide the food I sent home. Usually, I taught the children to share, but this was a matter of survival. After that, Dooney took the food right from his book bag and stashed it under his bed when he arrived home. One evening, his mother asked him for one of his cookies, but he told her that his teacher had told him not to share with anyone. After some negotiating, Dooney sold his mother one cookie for a dime.
Fortunately, we had a bank of clothing that caring parents had donated to the school. It provided Dooney’s wardrobe. A kind teacher in our building bought him socks and a pair of tennis shoes. His old sneakers, left over from kindergarten days, were so small that they were bruising his toes.
One day a reporter and photographer from The Washington Post appeared at the school to gather information for a series of articles on children and drugs. When the articles appeared that summer, Dooney became a media star. President Bush even told an anecdote about him in a televised antidrug speech. I was glad Dooney was in the spotlight because I hoped his story would make schools and governments realize that the drug problem has to be faced and that these desperate children need help—serious help—immediately. But I knew that Dooney was just the tip of the iceberg, and I worried that the many other Dooneys in my classroom and elsewhere would not get attention.
Life is better now for Dooney. His mother has moved from a halfway house for recovering addicts to a group home. She has a job and gives speeches about her recovery for Narcotics Anonymous. A caring relative is Dooney’s guardian, so Dooney has some stability and the necessities of life. Sadly for me, he has transferred to a school closer to his home. He is 4 inches taller and 10 pounds heavier. He smiles and jokes, is working hard in school, and made the honor role last year.
At my school, a pilot after-school program was created by school and county-government officials. It provides tutoring, counseling, and drug education. Equally important, it protects the children from neighborhood violence for three extra hours a day.
Dooney is a survivor. And I must be optimistic that real improvements are possible for other children like him. I tell my students that we must take each day as it comes and do the best we can with that day. It won’t always be the happiest day, but we must try to make it as good as possible.
Listening to the children without judging them or their parents is important. Letting them know that someone cares helps ease their pain. The after-school program also helps a great deal. But I must admit I still worry that Dooney and his playmates will carry emotional scars for a long, long time.
A version of this article appeared in the September 08, 1982 edition of Education Week as School Was The Only Haven