She was 7 years old, skinny, often unkempt, a wild little thing who screamed like a banshee, knew cuss words no little girl should know, and was quite the disruptive influence at the church school her grandparents paid for her to attend.
Somehow she stole my heart. I was 19 or 20, still young and idealistic, and I had not yet outgrown my childhood notion that love was enough to heal and fix anything. She was as drawn to me, a childcare worker at the school, as I was to her. At first she called me “Teacher”. Then she broke my heart by calling me “Mommy”.
Her mother, a single mom and an alcoholic, bought her a Raggedy Andy doll so that Tina could, as she claimed her mother told her, “also have a man in her bed at night”. She told me of what sounded like a steady stream of men in her mother’s bed, about fixing her own suppers, and about getting herself ready for school in the morning.
No matter how early I arrived to open up the church before morning day care started at 7:00am, it seemed that Tina would be waiting for me alone on the playground, underdressed for the weather, blonde hair all a mess, her thin little arms wrapped around herself, shivering. I would bundle her in my sweatshirt and hold her in my lap until she warmed up. It was one of those times that she started calling me “Mommy”.
She was impossible. She defied rules, tested boundaries, threw temper fits, fought with other children, and cussed like a little sailor. But she also sang the cutest rendition of both parts of Donnie and Marie’s signature duet that I’ve ever heard. And she craved affection and attention so desperately that it was painful to watch.
One day she flipped out when one of the school dads got playful with her. She shrieked, “Don’t molest me!!” and it scared him so much that he avoided her like the plague after that. I tried not to think about possible reasons for her reaction.
She was a bad influence on my little brother, and on a number of the other children. If she wasn’t clinging to me, I had to watch her like a hawk. She was a troubled little soul, desperately screaming for help.
One day she asked me if she could live with me, if I could be her mommy for real. I presented my case to my parents. In my naïveté, I actually thought I could ask her mother — who obviously didn’t want her — to give Tina to me, and I could raise her and love her to wholeness. Surely, despite my flaws and my youth, I would be a far better mother. We would live together in the “little house” behind the parsonage, and I would make sure she would not impose a burden on anyone else.
To me, she was worth turning my life upside down and backwards, worth giving up any hope of a “normal” future. How could I not do everything in my power to help her, to give her a better life, to rescue her, to save her?
I hated it when my mother would respond to my idealistic ideas with, “It’s not that simple.” This time I really hated it, because she was right.
And then Tina was kicked out of school. I marched into the principal’s office and demanded, pleaded, advocated, begged, guilted, quoted Scripture…you name it, I did it. How could we abandon Tina? Wasn’t she the sort of child who needed this school the most? The grandparents had sacrificed, skimping together money they didn’t have, in a desperate attempt to provide help for their little, troubled granddaughter — and we were tossing her out on her ear? I was eloquent and convincing…well, to my ears anyway. Everyone else seemed relieved to be free of the numerous ongoing and escalating behavior problems that were disrupting the other students. “We can’t sacrifice all the other students for one child,” the principal told me. “Why not?” I had the audacity to reply. “She needs us much more than they do.”
Just like that, Tina was out of my life. I never got to say goodbye, never saw or heard from her again. We had failed her. I was both angry and grieved.
The girl in this heartbreaking video reminded me of Tina…something about parts of her story, the way she looks and her outbursts of anger.
Tina impacted me more than she will ever know. I have no idea what became of her…if she’s still alive…if she even remembers me…I hope that she remembers that someone once loved her and believed in her, and thought she was worth rescuing. More than that, I hope that someone did in fact rescue her.
I hope her story had a happy, hopeful ending, her own version of this one: