A Mom Stands Up To Teens Who Use The Word “Retard”
October is National Down Syndrome Awareness Month. This guest post is by Hallie Levine Sklar, a mom of three who blogs over at Visions of Johanna.
“That kid’s a retard. A total f**g retard.”
I froze mid-motion when I heard those words. I’d left my husband with our three small children so I could have some time alone at our town pool to swim some laps.
As I’d walked in, I’d seen a bunch of teenage male lifeguards by the snack bar, snickering. I hadn’t bothered to pay attention to them until their voices reached me.
“That kid’s a retard,” one of them was shouting, a boy with white blonde hair and ears that stuck out from his head like Dumbo’s. “A total f**g retard.” He thrust his hands and tongue out, rocking back and forth with a Frankenstein like gait. “I can’t stand him. I mean, how f**g retarded can you be?”
Then he saw me. His eyes widened and his mouth opened and closed again and again, like a crazed dying guppy. He slowly lifted his right hand, waving it back and forth at me in a pathetic attempt to say hi.
“Oh s**t,” I heard another one of the lifeguards say.
You see, my eldest daughter, Johanna—who is 3 ½—has Down Syndrome. Fifty years ago she would have been labelled as “mentally retarded” and my husband and I would have been told to shunt her off to an institution. Thankfully, we live in a more enlightened world today, where the doctors and therapists who work with Jo Jo label her “developmentally delayed” and rave about her potential.
I don’t often hear the word retarded anymore, but when I do I cringe. Before Jo Jo were born, my husband and I often threw around the r word. We’re both type A people with limited patience, and when someone didn’t move fast enough to meet our needs—whether it was the cashier at our supermarket or the customer service rep on the phone—we’d roll our eyes and mumble, “retard.” We loved Family Guy and South Park and every other show that poked fun at people who didn’t meet our intellectual standards. I remember being eight months pregnant with Johanna and watching a scene in Borat where Sascha Barot Cohen (aka Ali G) horrifies the other guests at a dinner party by talking about his “retarded” brother who was kept in a cage. I laughed so hard I wet my pants.
Then our daughter was born and everything changed. Once we got over the shock of the diagnosis, we fell in love with our baby, with her wisps of red hair and little rosebud mouth and huge almond-shaped hazel eyes that crinkled up when she smiled. Somehow, the word retard was no longer humorous. It was blatantly, obscenely offensive.
I could tell the boy was mortified to have been caught saying the r word in front of Jo Jo’s mom. All the lifeguards at our pool know who Johanna is—besides being insanely cute with her French braids and Ralph Lauren pink bikinis she became famous (well maybe infamous) this past July when she made a huge number two in the toddler pool that blasted through her swim diaper.
A few moms were sitting with their kids at the picnic tables, watching me closely, and I realized with a sick feeling in my stomach that they all wanted to see how this scene would play out. Part of me—a really big part—just wanted to keep walking over to the competition pool and swim my laps like nothing had happened. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did that. I sighed and walked over to the lifeguards. “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that as the mother of a child with a disability, I find your use of the word retard horrifying and offensive,” I said to the boy.
He blushed, making the blotches of acne on his face even redder. “No ma’am,” he said. “You don’t.”
“For the record, I don’t find the word retarded itself problematic—taken literally, it means to go more slowly,” I said. I tried to keep my voice calm and level, even though I really wanted to slap him across the face. “But it’s people like you, who use the word in a derogatory manner that I find offensive.” I turned around and walked away.
I got into the pool and fiercely began swimming laps. I knew the pool was 25 meters, so I began mentally calculating how many laps would equal a mile. When I’d finished and walked, dripping, through the main entrance, the boy stepped out in front of me. “I just want you to know,” he said, “I’m really, really sorry, and I won’t ever use that word again.”
My head was pounding. I wasn’t sure if it was from the chlorine or simply from having to deal with a situation I didn’t want to be in.
“I think your daughter is adorable,” he added. His eyes were blinking rapidly and with his long pale eyelashes he looked for a moment like a large terrified rabbit. “I wasn’t thinking of her when I said it. Honestly.”
“I’m sure you weren’t,” I said. “But think about her every time you’re tempted to say the word retard.”
“I will,” he said solemnly. “I would never, ever want to hurt her feelings.” I wondered if he was sincere or if he was worried I’d complain about him and quash his chances of scoring the same cushy job next year.
I guess I have too much other stuff going on in my life to worry about what’s going through some adolescent’s brain. But as I walked to my car, I kept thinking about that word, and how scornful and ugly the boy’s mouth had looked as he said it.
I don’t want to think about a decade from now, when someone will say it spitefully in front of my daughter and I will watch her face crumble as she grasps the implications of the word.
I’m just glad that she wasn’t with me at that moment, and that she’s still too young to understand. I can only hope that by the time Johanna reaches puberty, the term retard will have gone the way of other unfortunate trends like big hair or acid washed jeans—that is, it will have become obsolete.
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