The phrase “peer mentoring” has always bothered me when applied to typically developing kids (or adults) and their differently-abled same-aged peers. The first definition that comes up for mentor is “verb – advise or train (someone, esp. a younger colleague).” A mentor and his or her mentee are not really considered equals, but teachers and protégées. That, to me, is illustrative of this whole idea that our kids are “included” but still not yet viewed as whole, equally contributing members of their communities.
From my response to a comment last week on The In Between
“You know, baby,” I said, “you will have a richer life than most people on this planet.”
She asked what I meant.
“Katie, your life will be so full because you are willing to SEE people. You want to meet them, know them, play with them, understand them, share joy with them. Your life will be full of people who not everyone was willing to take the time to get to know. And it will be immeasurably richer for their presence. You have a lot to look forward to. You are a very lucky girl.”
From A Gift Given Twice, February, 2011
Luau and I sat down with Katie’s teacher for our very first middle school parent-teacher conference. As we were finishing up, she said, “Oh gosh, and it’s just so nice that she spends time with Jane. She’ll even choose her as a work partner. She’s so good with her. You’ve got a really sweet kid there.”
I wanted to scream.
Last week, a friend reached out to me and a couple of other mamas. She needed to process something. Normally one of the most composed people I know, she was clearly rattled. She’d just come from a meeting at which her son’s teacher had said that they’d rewarded one of his classmates for … talking to him.
There’s something that I need to say. I’ve shouted it from rooftops and splashed it on billboards. I’ve screamed it from mountain to mountain and listened to its echo into the valleys below. But I think it’s time now to say it softly, quietly, slowly. To say it in a way that will convey its gravity. Because nothing less than my child’s place in the world depends on it.
Eustacia Cutler famously said of her daughter, Temple, she is different, not less. No child, no human being, no matter how different, is less. Ever.
When we set up these paradigms in which children are told (or shown) that their disabled peers are protégées to be mentored, in which we pat them on the head for being friends with a kid who is different from themselves or, dear God, reward them for talking to another kid, we ensure that there’s not a chance in Hell that our children will ever be thought of as equals.
No one has ever told me that it was really sweet that someone was friendly to Katie. Or given a reward to a kid who talked to her in class. And no one is ever going to. Because the assumption is that, as a bright, outgoing, typical kid, she’s worth being nice to.
When Katie’s teacher said that it was “so nice” that Katie spent time with Jane, all that I could muster was, “They’ve been friends for years,” but the truth was just that. Katie and Jane were, and are, friends. Jane may have some pretty pronounced differences, but .. well, there’s no but. Their relationship is as reciprocal as any other. Katie gets just as much out of it as she puts in. Because that’s how friendship works. Katie loves that Jane sees the world a little differently. Jane probably likes the fact that in some ways, Katie does too. Their friendship is its own reward.
When we send the message to typical kids that talking to a child with special needs is some grand act of charity, we tell them that the intrinsic reward of their friendship isn’t enough to make the effort worthwhile. When we tell them that they are so sweet to spend time with someone, the implication is that they are giving more than they could possibly get in return. That they are acting as a friend out of the goodness of their hearts rather than being a friend to someone who is perfectly capable of being a friend in return.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from encouraging interaction. I really don’t. I’m not sticking my head in the sand and claiming that there’s no gulf between those with differences and those without. There is. And it has to change. Yesterday. So maybe rewarding kids for doing the right thing and for being good friends to each other is the answer, but if that’s the route we’re taking, we have to make sure that we’re doing it consistently for ALL kids.
Because I am scared to death of the message that it sends to our differently-abled children when we act as if they are recipients of charity rather than, well, kids. Kids who are, in more ways than not, just like everyone else. Kids who can, in their own ways, give just as much as they get. Kids who may be different, but who we cannot keep calling, whether it be by word or by deed, less.