Peer Buddies

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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.)

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Deviants in the Classroom

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“In a deviant society, why and how do people avoid deviance?” – Walter Reckless’ Containment Theory

Most of the kids in Miss Tee’s class had what were called “behavior problems.”  It’s one of those nice educational terms that exists so kids aren’t called bad, naughty, or, as I like to think of them, devil children. Another term used to describe Miss Tee’s class was “self-contained.” This is an odd phrase, one that makes it unclear as to whether the teacher works with children or with a contagious disease.  By definition, it just means that the students learn all subject areas in one classroom, but it sounds as though they have the bird flue or something.  I wonder if there was a big meeting somewhere, and the brightest people in the school system chose the term “self-contained classroom” narrowly over “sequestered zone” or “quarantined place of learning.”

In February of 2005, I got my first job in the field of education, becoming Miss Tee’s Teacher Assistant.  I chose to be a TA because I thought that the experience would show me the ropes.  As a TA, I could learn how to be a teacher from the inside.  Miss Tee had taught for ages, and I figured she would show me how to write lesson plans, how to differentiate instruction, and how to implement classroom management techniques that could turn a bunch of hooligans into a class of student-handbook abiding citizens.

For the first few days, this was what happened.  Miss Tee was a slightly older woman in her late forties or early fifties.  She was alternatively stern and kind as I thought a teacher should be.  Despite her name, Miss Tee had been married for years and had a daughter in high school.  I eventually learned that every woman in the South is referred to as “miss” regardless of her marital status.  In addition to Miss Tee, there was also a sign language interpreter in the classroom, an Italian woman around the same age as Miss Tee named Miss Pepperoni (hey, changing real people’s names is hard, cut me some slack on this one).  Of course, Miss Pepperoni was also married.  She and Miss Tee got along famously.  So well, it turned out, that on some days there would be very little interpreting and even less teaching.

As I got used to working in the classroom, I started to grasp the daily routine.  After I got the kids off the bus, the class ate breakfast in the empty cafeteria.  Next came the longest portion of the day, when the kids did a math worksheet independently while Miss Tee and Miss Pepperoni read the newspaper and talked about their lives.  Around mid-afternoon I took the kids to the gym for Adaptive PE.  Miss Tee and Miss Pepperoni stayed in the classroom.  Lunch followed, and then story time.  Finally came my most active duty of the school day: taking the kids to the soccer field to play while Miss Tee and Miss Pepperoni watched Oprah.

Since I considered myself her apprentice, I was a bit disappointed.  When I asked Miss Tee about lesson plans, she simply said, “I don’t do those.” There were no tests and I saw no evidence of any curriculum being followed.  Eventually, Miss Tee laid it out for me nice and clearly.

“We’re self-contained special ed,” she said.  “The school don’t care about us.  How many times does the Principal come in here?  Maybe once or twice to say ‘hi’ to the kids.  These kids don’t take state tests! They don’t do EOGs.  That’s what the school cares about.  We just stay in our room and make it look like everything is nice and happy.”

Way back in the 1950s, a criminologist named Walter Reckless created what he called his “Containment Theory.”  It concerns how individuals resist acting out in deviant ways.  One of the main “buffers” in his theory is the “outer society,” which basically provides rules and dictates what is generally acceptable behavior.  Thinking back on that classroom, with all those “behavior problem” students, it’s striking how the teacher, Miss Tee, might have been the most deviant of anybody.  It makes sense, though.  There was no outer society to keep Miss Tee in line.  She had broken away from it, presumably after years and years of her special education class getting nothing but neglect and indifference from the rest of the school.  Our class wasn’t really a part of the school society.  And as a result, everyone did what they wanted.  The kids played soccer. The teacher watched Oprah.

Remembering my time as her assistant, though, I can clearly recall those days when Miss Tee’s “inner buffer” took over and she did what she knew how to do: she taught.  And man could Miss Tee teach when she wanted to.  When she read the class a story, they sat there riveted.  When she talked, they listened. When they misbehaved, she ended it with just a look.  Being with Miss Tee, I saw glimpses of one heck of an amazing teacher.  And I also saw – maybe more importantly – what can happen to a great teacher stuck in self-containment, in a school system that never bothers to look or say thanks.

(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.  “Deviants in the Classroom” is Part Three.)

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