The little girl barely raised her eyes when she spoke. I don’t know what her name was, only that she seemed embarrassed. She was in the 7th grade, as were all of the girls in the room. The other girls, with their braces and hoodies and makeup, all nodded along to what she was saying:
“It made me uncomfortable,” the little girl said. “Especially when I hugged him, and he grinded his body against me.”
Let’s back up a bit, before anybody was grinding anybody. Way back before Adapted Physical Education got too physical, before Peer Buddies became Hug Buddies, and before our self-contained class of special education students let their hormones overtake all those lessons on how to be “appropriate” in the community.
The Peer Buddy program at Crestdale Middle School was, in theory, a perfectly sweet idea. The school had one all special ed class – Miss Tee’s class. There were nine students in that class, and each one of them was assigned two regular ed “peer buddies.” The regular ed kids were all volunteers, so this was not anything that was forced upon anybody. They were selected based on their grades. In other words, these were really good kids. They wanted to buddy up with a schoolmate with special needs. For forty-five minutes each day, the Peer Buddies would take their friends to what was called “Adapted PE.” It was basically just gym class, the only adaptation being that the Peer Buddies were there to help out.
To our kids, the Peer Buddies were AWESOME. It was the only time during the entire day (apart from lunch) that they were allowed to mix with the other students in the school. For forty-five minutes our kids could integrate with the “regular” students, talk with them, be their friends, and really become people with personalities and not just a bunch of kids in a disabled class.
They could also, unfortunately, sexually harass all of the female students.
The problem with the Peer Buddy program was in getting the kids to make the distinction between an Adapted PE partner and an actual friend. When our kids started calling the Peer Buddies their “best friends,” you could see a level of awkwardness set in. Michael would ask his Peer Buddy what he was doing over the weekend, and there would be hesitancy and blushing in the “I’m busy” response.
The girl Peer Buddies had it worse. They had to band together and tell their English teacher that the Peer Buddy program wasn’t going very well. Miss Tee and I were called in. There was the assembly of girl Peer Buddies, looking like a middle school version of NOW, ready to tell it like it was. There weren’t angry, though. Instead they seemed shy and sad, almost guilty for saying what they had to say.
“At the end of class,” one of them said, “the boys all ask us for hugs and kisses. When we let them hug us, they rub against us. It’s really uncomfortable. We don’t want to do the Peer Buddy program anymore.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was just as uncomfortable and embarrassed as the girls seemed to be. Miss Tee, though, stepped right up, speaking in her strong voice. When she spoke like this, it never seemed antagonizing, but instead like she was saying something so clear and obvious it could only be said with blunt force.
“Don’t let them hug you,” she said. “Why are you letting them do that? Would you let a boy in your math class do that?”
The girls all shook their heads “no.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” Miss Tee went on. “You have the right to say ‘no’ to them. Just because they’re special needs kids, you think you have to let them hug you? They’re boys! And they ask for kisses and you think that’s okay? That’s not okay! Girls, what are you thinking? You don’t have to quit the Peer Buddy program. All you have to do is say ‘no.'”
Our boys got a lecture as well, and more lessons on how to be appropriate in the community. After the meeting, checking up on our students in the Adapted PE class, I started to see the girls stand their ground. They would shake their heads ‘no’ and speak firmly. The hugging came to a fast end.
That was the only thing that came to an end, though. To the students in Miss Tee’s class, the Peer Buddies were still AWESOME. As the summer crept in and the school year came to a close, our boys learned to respect boundaries, and the 7th grade girls learned to enforce them. The brilliant thing about the Peer Buddy program, it turned out, was that it wasn’t always easy. It did what an inclusive program is supposed to do. It taught the kids about themselves, and about living with others. They learned that it isn’t simple kindness that allows us to adapt to one another, but basic honesty instead.
(In Self-Containment: Memories of a Teacher’s Assistant is my ongoing serial about the year I spent as a TA in a self-contained special ed middle school classroom. The names of the students and teachers I talk about have been changed. “Peer Buddies” is Part Four.)