Sometimes parents are lucky enough to have a child that is born perfectly healthy; other times, parents don’t have that luck, but do at least know what is wrong with their child.  Mr. and Mrs. Snider didn’t have a healthy child, nor did they have the comfort of knowing what exactly was wrong with their son, Martin.  They had brought him to doctor after doctor, and there was still no real diagnosis.  The doctors agreed on certain things though – Martin had profound mental retardation, his ears were big, his eyes were widely spaced apart, and he had an enlarged heart that would likely cut his life short.  For fourteen years, Martin’s condition was a mystery, until he and his mother were approached by a woman in the supermarket.

“She came right up to us,” Mrs. Snider told me.  “She wanted to say hello to Martin.  We got to talking, and I told her we weren’t sure what his condition was.  She said, ‘He has Coffin Lowry Syndrome.  Trust me.'”

That night Mrs. Snider went on the Internet and typed “Coffin Lowry” into a Google search.  All she had to see was one picture, and in that second, the mystery was solved.

“I looked at the picture,” she said, “and my heart stopped.  The boy looked exactly like my son.”

After Mrs. Snider told me this story, I too did a Google search of “Coffin Lowry.”  Like she said, it only took looking through some pictures to know what was wrong with Martin.  In image after image, I saw him.  The thick lips and eyebrows.  The sleepy look in the eyes.  The open-mouth smile.  There was my friend, obvious and apparent in each and every photo.  In reading about Coffin Lowry, I learned that the syndrome is rare, untreatable, and comes out of nowhere.  The disorder is caused by a mutation of a gene that isn’t passed down by either parent; in other words, it just happens, like raindrops without clouds or a fire without a spark.

Martin was the most needy student in the middle school classroom where I worked.  At lunch, I cut up his sandwich into small squares that he would eat with a fork.  I took Martin to the bathroom several times a day, sometimes to change him when he had an accident.  I held his hand when we walked down the hall.  Everyone in the school loved him.  Miss Tee, the classroom teacher, adored Martin.  The other students talked to him even though Martin couldn’t say anything other than “okay” or “bye bye.”  When Martin laughed, you laughed too.  He made people happy without trying.  It was something about his spirit, his energy, and the way he was with people.  He liked them.  There wasn’t a person – an adult or a student – that Martin Snider wasn’t happy to see.

Then one afternoon near the end of the school year, I brought Martin to the bathroom and he collapsed.  His hands started shaking and his lips turned white.  His eyes rolled back in his head.  It was one of the scariest moments of my life.  I ran out of the bathroom and called for help.  Martin ended up in the hospital, and I didn’t see much of him after that.  His mother came by the school to let us know he was all right, but didn’t go much into detail.  When he came back, he collapsed again.  Even through all that, he kept his big smile and his loud laugh.  He wasn’t there in June, on the last day of school, but Mrs. Snider brought him in to say goodbye for the summer.

“We really miss him,” Miss Tee said with a broad smile.  I missed him too.  He turned to his mother looking as happy as he had ever looked, and her eyes got misty.  She turned to him and said, “You hear that Martin?  Everybody loves you.  We’re not ready for you to go yet.”

Genetics is a strange thing.  It can produce perfect cheekbones, wonderful eyes, and an entire range of physical beauty.  Or it can somehow produce something else.  But perhaps it also can produce kindess and love, or at least I believe so, especially when I think about Mrs. Snider and her son Martin, holding hands and walking together out into the hot June day.

(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.  “Martin” is Part Five.)



Peer Buddies


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.)


Deviants in the Classroom


“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.)


Grape Jelly Burger


During my first week as a middle-school teacher’s assistant, a student named Michael asked me if he could put grape jelly on his hamburger.  Michael was an overweight 8th grader with big glasses and a bad stutter.  He was one of nine students in the TMD class where I’d been hired to work.  In the world of special education, TMD stands for “Trainable Mentally Disabled.”  It’s one of those pleasantly demeaning spec ed terms, carefully avoiding things like the word “retardation,” and instead opting to refer to the students as “trainable.”

“Sure,” I told him.  “Why not?”  Putting jelly on his burger was odd, yes, but seemed harmless.  Then again, that could be because my personal tastes sometimes stray from the beaten path.  I smother French fries in mustard, and when I eat vanilla ice cream, I like to put Bacos on it (it’s a delicious treat).

From across the cafeteria table, Miss Tee saw what Michael was doing.  She rushed over and, in one quick motion, smacked him upside the head with the palm of her hand.

“What’s wrong with you?” she scolded.  “Putting grape jelly on a hamburger like a crazy person!”

Michael hung his head in shame.  He tried to stutter out an apology to Miss Tee.  Working with Michael for the good part of a year, I’d get used to hearing people call him “crazy.”  It happened on a daily basis.  Michael giggled and clapped his hands when he was happy, cried like a child when he was upset, and would slap and grab his classmates when he was angry with them.  Even those in the same boat as Michael – meaning his classmates – thought he was nuts.  “Man, Mr. P,” his classmate Jermaine said, “Michael sho’ is crazy.  Ask him how he got that scar on his arm.  Ask him!”

There was a long white scar twisting down Michael’s wrist and forearm.  About a year earlier, Michael’s father had left the car running in the driveway.  An opportunist, Michael hopped in the driver’s seat, put the car in drive, stepped on the gas, and proceeded to drive the car right into a tree.  He fell out of the car but, to his dismay, the car kept going.  Miserable from mistreatment, the car proceeded to maneuver itself over Michael’s arm and then, just to add further humiliation, ran itself into a neighbor’s house.  This left Michael’s parents with some large bills, and Michael with a big scar and a story he’d have to repeat a million times.  I heard the story a lot.  Every time Michael would finish telling it, the person he told would shake their head and say, “Boy, that Michael really is crazy.”

Of all the kids in Miss Tee’s class, Michael seemed the loneliest.  People don’t want to be friends with the “crazy” kid.  He was teased by the kids in the class, and when he’d walk down the halls and say hello to the other students in the school, they’d usually just pass by him in silence.

Michael and I sat at the last table in the school cafeteria during lunch.  We’d look out at all the other middle-school kids.  We saw the ones in all black, the ones with expensive clothes, the ones with their jeans sagged, the ones done up in nerd chic.  To them, being unique was a celebration; choosing to be different was part of their blooming identities.  When they passed by Michael, they didn’t understand how lonely it feels to be someone who truly is different.  For the vast majority of 14 year olds, it’s an exciting time discovering the small idiosyncrasies that separate them from the rest.  But while that majority finds peace with its quirks, the Michaels of the world are stuck with the confusion that comes with really being separate, the frustration of knowing exactly who they are.

I liked Michael.  He was who he was.  He was only a boy who stuttered, had a scar, and didn’t understand why grape jelly doesn’t go on a hamburger when, to him, it made all the sense in the world.

(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.  “Grape Jelly Burger” is Part Two.)




At the end of my job interview, I was taken into the classroom because Miss Tee thought it would be good for me to meet the students.  I had just moved to Charlotte, NC, and was applying for the Teacher’s Assistant position in Miss Tee’s classroom.  Meeting the students before being hired was, in theory, like living with someone before proposing marriage.  It was a test drive.  I politely introduced myself to the students in the class, and that’s when one skinny black kid with a small head came up to me and extended his hand.

“I’m Jermaine,” he said.  “Will you be my homeboy?”

Of course I said yes; later Crestdale Middle School said ‘yes’ too and I was hired.  Reporting to the classroom every day gave me ample opportunity to spend time with my new homie.  Jermaine was a fetal alcohol baby.  He was taken away from his mom when he was little and now lived with a foster dad named Mr. Whte (who, like his name implies, was an old white guy).  Jermaine spent every waking moment outside of school watching BET.  It didn’t matter what was on.  He watched it.  Always alone, because Mr. White wasn’t very interested in 106 and Park or Bobby Jones Gospel. 

Jermaine had a social worker who picked him up from school two days a week.  “You know what we do?” the social worker asked me once.  “We go down to the used car dealership.  He picks out a car he likes, and they open it and let him sit in it.”

“Do you sit in the car with him?” I asked, trying to envision this.

“No,” the social worker said.  “He sits in it by himself.  He’ll stay for a good twenty minutes too.  He doesn’t touch anything.  Just sits there in the driver’s seat.”

Since we were homeboys, Jermaine told me all about the shows on BET and the cars he’d “driven.”  He also shared with me his obsession with the movie “You Got Served.”  He had it on DVD and would bring it to school to show it off.

“I’m gonna make my own dance crew,” he told his classmates.  “You all can be in it.  Mr. P can join our dance crew too.”

Although the idea was ludicrous, Jermaine was dead serious.  He tried to show me dance moves, and he reminded his classmates almost hourly about “the crew.”  In a class of socially awkward EC kids, Jermaine was looked up to, and his peers would beam with pride when he’d talk about how they’d be just like the crew from “You Got Served” which, he was quick to point out in case anyone forgot, he owned on DVD.

There are two sides to most personalities, and my homeboy could be a terror in the classroom when he wanted to.  On bad days he’d curse and threaten his petrified classmates.  Sometimes he’d refuse to go with the social worker or even leave school.  When he was in his rebellious mood, he always said the same thing:

“I’m a mean retarded boy,” he’d say.  “I’m a mean retarded boy.”

Someone from his past must’ve called him that, I figured.  On his good days, Jermaine could leave whatever nightmares happened to him and become the charming leader of the class.  On his bad days, he burned with anger.  Who could blame him?  There had to be some part of him that wondered why he watched BET alone in a house with an old white man.  Or that knew there would never be a dance crew, and as long as he could sit in the driver’s seat of a car, no one would ever hand him the keys.

If that part of him wondered if Mr. P was really his homeboy, he never let on.  I did my best to fit the role.  I talked to him, listened to him, hugged him on graduation and told him I was proud of him.  He told me he would go to East Mecklenburg High, his smile large.  Jermaine didn’t seem quite ready to move into his future, but he was happy to.  Just like he probably saw the road in motion before him, even when he sat in a car that wasn’t moving.

(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.  “Homeboys” is Part One.) 


The Agony of Teaching Spec Ed


There was a pair of twins in my reading class.  One day, a girl in the class asked one of them what he would do if his brother died.  He thought about it for a moment, and then said, “I’d carry a full-length mirror around with me.  That way I could look in it and think he was still there.”

His response made the whole class laugh.  It was ridiculous, yes, but also clever.  I had nine students in my reading class, and they were all labeled “special ed.”  At the end of the year, they would have to take the same state test as every other ninth-grade student in the school.  None of my students had passed their eighth grade test, and most didn’t come very close.  In North Carolina, the state uses past testing data to create predictor scores for every student – the score the student will likely get on an upcoming test (I’m not sure if other states do this).  According to the predictor scores, not one student in my class was going to pass their state-made final exam.  Everyone would fail, and fail pretty badly. 

Thanks to No Child Left Behind, my nine students were required to pass this test in order to eventually graduate from high school.  It seems like a logical conundrum – if the state and the school system have reliable data to suggest the students will not pass the test, then how are they still being held to that standard?  That’s kind of like throwing a fish down on a hot street and hoping it’ll breathe.  To extend that metaphor, I would be sort of like a life guard, assigned to helping the fish learn to use it’s gills like lungs.  Perhaps that’s a negative way to look at things, but it’s how you start to think when you’re a spec ed teacher: Do they really believe that I can do this?  The thing is, it’s hard to imagine that the school system truly does think that you can get all those students to pass.  Which creates a second question: Have they really given me an impossible assignment and just walked away with their fingers crossed? 

Let’s go back to my little reading class.  We spent the year reading and writing like a good English class is supposed to.  I tried my best to make the curriculum interesting: we used Wu-Tang Clan lyrics to learn assonance, played “Match Game” to learn analogies, and had a class poetry reading complete with coffee and candy cigarettes.  My nine students were trying as hard as they could.  Sometimes they’d get frustrated and close their books – the work was too much.  Sometimes we’d just talk and laugh, about how I’d had a bad date over the weekend, or at DC’s new purple wig, or at the thought of a twin using a mirror to trick himself.

At the end of the year, I held my breath while they took their test.  After retesting, 4 out of 9 passed.  Everyone outdid their predictor score.  Which brings us to the true agony of the spec ed teacher: Was our class a success or a failure?  We outdid expectations and everyone showed progress.  Yet over half the class failed.  I talked on the phone with overjoyed parents.  Yet their joy was brought on by a grade of D minus – happiness because their child hit the lowest possible passing score on the nose.  I was thanked.  DC hugged me because she was so proud she’d passed a state reading test.  Another student, HG, literally screamed when I told him he passed.  He was 17 , still in the ninth grade and had failed all of his classes first semester.  Usually when he got news from his teacher, it wasn’t this sweet.

To be a spec ed teacher is to bank everything on hope.  You hope you can teach them.  You hope the odds aren’t as bad as they seem.  Finally you hope that the small victories will add up, the weight of failure doesn’t become too much, and that your students will keep having ridiculous and clever ideas, and the ability to laugh at them.