Out of the (Down syndrome) Box: “Educating Peter”

I watched it.

Turned out, it was a very old tape (much heavier than current VHS tapes, which I guess are lighter because they’re getting ready to go POOF altogether, followed by DVDs, leaving me screwed) with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” taped after the 1992 documentary “Educating Peter,” which a friend had given me — she found when she was cleaning out her old tapes.

The tracking was awful, so I kept having to look away, but to be honest, I would have been looking  away, no matter what. The documentary won an Academy Award, so it’s not that the piece is poorly done — to the contrary, I was impressed with the head-on approach. The “nut graph,” as we say in journalism, was simple in a good way: Federal law has mainstreamed kids with disabilities. They are in our public schools. Here is the example of how one kid affected his third grade classroom.

I was also impressed that, at the outset, the filmmakers said they were not taking a political position — that some people liked mainstreaming, others did not. But curiously, at the end, they put up a big fat caveat: a black and white typed message saying that a. not all kids with Down syndrome have behavioral problems like Peter’s. And b. that all kids can benefit from the mainstreaming experience.

So I guess there was some pressure, after the movie came out. I wasn’t at all surprised about the former comment, since it’s what kept me looking away. I’ve got to say (and this whole “Down syndrome Box” thing won’t work if I’m not honest — who knows, maybe it won’t work, anyway, but I’m going to try, at the risk of making enemies with the likes of Peter’s mom) that if I’d seen this documentary when Sophie was a baby, I would have tossed myself out the highest window I could have found.

Ray walked in when the movie started. He tried in vain to fix the tracking. When he saw what it was he left. As you’ll recall, he didn’t care one bit for “Graduating Peter,” the follow-up documentary.

“The kid has ADD, too,” he said, as he hightailed it back to the kitchen.

I am quite certain that Peter is a lovable, wonderful, productive member of society. And I can’t speak to his high school years, as I didn’t watch that one and am not sure I will. But I can say that he was a freaking handful for his third grade teacher, a woman who appeared from the movie to have absolutely no experience with special needs kids. It was hard to say whether there was an aide in the classroom. There could have been, but if there was, no mention was made.

Instead, the short film is presented as a year filled with, basically, the task of getting third graders to police this kid. They did a good job, I have to admit, but they did it was so much compassion, grace and maturity (onscreen, at least, and that even includes the “uglier” moments, which the filmmakers, to their credit, did put in) that I have to wonder (sorry, Carrie Bradshaw) just how much the fact that cameras were in the classroom had to do with the experience.

That’s the problem. There’s no way to truly document the experience your kid (special needs or otherwise) will have in the classroom. I learned this when I tried to volunteer in Sophie’s public preschool room. The Amazing Ms. Janice wouldn’t even let me in the door — and for good reason, I learned, the morning I did visit. My presence changed everything. Cameras — even with the filmmakers’ best intentions — changed everything, too. I’d bet on it. Peter was one challenging third grader, and everything I know in my being tells me those kids acted differently toward him because they were onstage.

Or maybe I’m just a cynical bitch. That is definitely a possibility.

I cringed more than once, watching, because although the third grade Peter is what Ray and I would most unkindly label “low functioning” (Sophie, I think, does many things better already, at 5) I saw my daughter in Peter, again and again. I’d piled my lap with magazines to read while I watched, in case exactly that happened, so I peered from around the pages of Real Simple and Bust to see Peter say, “Soooorrrrry” just like Sophie; to see him hug (inappropriately) his classmates and refuse to let go, just like Sophie. When he turned his head to the side, I saw Sophie. When he threw himself on the floor and said, “Sleepy!” I saw Sophie.

I watched that movie and I saw Sophie disrupting that third grade classroom and even though Peter/Sophie did well at the end and even won a prize, I saw my daughter hopelessly behind in academics, with no “real” friends — a mascot of a classroom of kids that pulled together to help out the f-ed up child tossed in with them.

Perhaps not the best thing to watch, three weeks before kindergarten starts. I think I’ll dig up the first season of “Life Goes On” for my next installment.

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2 Comments

Filed under Out of the (Down syndrome) Box

2 responses to “Out of the (Down syndrome) Box: “Educating Peter”

  1. Pingback: DownSyndrome.com Resources » Blog Archive » It came from the Down syndrome Box: “Educating Peter”

  2. Look, incluion and dumping a kid in the classroom without support are two entirely different things. If you have an aide, a positive staff, guidance for the teacher and aide, a good IEP (what you want to teach and how to get there), there is no reason that inclusion should not work. And as for “seeing” your child in Peter… well, he was much older. Who says that your child will act like this at that age. In fact, GOOD inclusion is probably your best bet to avoid it.

    Rickismom, mother of Ricki, age 13, who has DS and ADHD and who is sucessfully included.
    http://beneaththewings.blogspot.com/

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