At the beginning of the year, Torey is given a long, narrow, carpeted classroom with a single window at the end – very inconvenient for a special education class. Her teaching assistant is a Mexican migrant worker named Anton who didn't finish high school.
The students at the beginning of the year are as follows:
- Peter, 8, who has seizures and aggressive behavior caused by a neurological condition
- Tyler, 8, suicidal
- Max, 6, autistic
- Freddie, 7, obese and profoundly mentally retarded
- Sarah, 7, angry, defiant and selectively mute because of physical and sexual abuse by her father
- Susannah Joy, 6, schizophrenic
- William, 9, OCD with phobias of water, darkness, cars, vacuum cleaners, and dust
- Guillermo, 9, blind, but he's in this class because the normal blind classes were unprepared to handle his aggressive behavior
At age 4, Sheila's then-18-year-old mother left and took Sheila and 2-year-old brother Jimmie with her; however, on the highway, Sheila's mother opened the door and pushed Sheila out, leaving her behind. Since then, Sheila has lived in poverty with her neglectful and verbally abusive father. When she joined Torey's class, Sheila's father did not have enough money to get water to wash themselves or the one set of clothes Sheila owned. Thus, she came to school dirty and smelly every day.
Sheila joins the group just after Christmas vacation. At first, she refuses to participate in the class and refuses to speak to anyone. She stays sitting in one chair. On her first day of school, at lunch, Sheila takes all of the goldfish from the aquarium and stabs their eyes out with a pencil. Torey and Whitney, a 14-year-old girl who assists the class, chase Sheila into the gymnasium, and Torey eventually soothes the terrified girl into coming back to class.
After a few days, Sheila and Torey begin to trust one another, and Torey takes to giving her a bath every morning so her smell doesn't distract the other students. Torey also shampoos Sheila's hair and styles it with kiddie barrettes, giving the child a chance to feel beautiful and learn what it means to feel appreciated cared for, although Sheila fears that the fancy new hair decorations will be confiscated by her father.
After Sheila began participating in class, there were still a few issues. First, she was focused on revenge. At one point, a teacher scolded her in the lunch room, so she went into the teacher's room and caused $700 worth of damage to the classroom. Also, Sheila refuses to do paper work. However, when given other mediums to work with (stacking blocks, for instance), she reveals that she is incredibly smart and talented for someone who only had a few months of first grade; her I.Q. is later tested, and comes to a total of 182, which is, according to Torey, around 1 in 10,000 for a six-year-old. Sheila remains obsessed with showing people that she is worthwhile, and terrified of abandonment.
At one point, Torey goes to California for a few days for a conference. The students were given plenty of warning, but Sheila interpreted it as abandonment by the one person who had shown her love, and misbehaved through the whole trip.
In the middle of the year, Torey is notified that a space has opened up at the state hospital for Sheila. Torey is horrified, seeing that this girl with all her improvement should not be put into an institution. They bring the case to court, with the help of Torey's boyfriend Chad, a lawyer, and win. Afterwards, Torey and Chad take Sheila out for pizza and buy her a dress.
One day, Sheila comes to school looking pale and nervous. She uses the bathroom twice in the first half-hour. Torey takes Sheila on her lap, and then notices she's bleeding. Sheila eventually confesses that her uncle Jerry had tried to rape her, and when she was too small, he cut her with his knife. Sheila is rushed to the hospital after losing a lot of blood and has to have surgery to repair the damage. In the 1995 sequel, The Tiger's Child, it is revealed that because of this incident, Sheila is infertile. Sheila deals with the traumatic experience remarkably well, though she refuses to wear dresses for a while afterward.
At the end of the year, Torey introduces Sheila to next year's teacher. Sheila will be going into third grade, because Torey feels she can deal with the harder material and that it's more important at this point that Sheila's teacher be loving and understanding. Torey knows this teacher personally and knows she would be.