So sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake. When my husband and I were first dating, he took note of a book on my bookshelf called Rubyfruit Jungle, by Rita Mae Brown. A favorite from my college days, it’s a seethingly funny autobiographical account of the author’s coming of age (and coming out) in Florida in the late fifties and early sixties.
To say the least, I was surprised that Luau’s attention would be drawn to this particular book, but it was quickly apparent why. He explained that his Dad had gone to high school with Ms. Brown and that some of the characters in the book were thinly veiled accounts of their mutual classmates. The one that stood out above all others was Luau’s one time step-mother, Judy Bass.
He reminded me of the not all together flattering (but really damn funny) portrayal of a certain ‘Judy Trout’ in the book. Since Luau remembers Judy fondly, I will refrain from repeating the particulars of the depiction of her character in the book, but trust me on funny.
Nearly two years later, we were sitting in our living room (having long since moved in together by then) and I caught a glimpse of the book out of the corner of my eye. And the wheels started turning. And I yelled.
“Oh my God! They’re both fish!”
(Feel free to read that again if you need to. I’ll wait.)
So, point is I’m not always the first one to catch on. Sometimes my little foam stuffed head is just full. And sometimes it goes on strike completely.
And so it was that until we had to register my beautiful baby girl with our state’s Department of Mental Retardation’s Division of Autism, I really had not thought about how hurtful the word ‘retard’ could be.
It wasn’t until we had found Brooke’s wonderful school and she became friends with two amazing, delightful little children who happened to have Down syndrome that it really, truly sunk in. I am so sorry that it took me so long.
I used to make jokes.
I used to say, “I ride the little bus and wear hockey equipment every day” to make fun of myself. I thought it was funny. It hurts writing this. I am embarrassed. More than anything, I am sorry. My ignorance and insensitivity were inexcusable.
If Brooke rode the bus to school, it would be the ‘short bus’ that is provided by the town for the special needs kids. The only reason that she doesn’t is that we are lucky enough that Luau can be home and take her to and from school.
All of her friends ride that bus.
We are all on that bus.
I am so sorry.
When I made a mistake I used to say, self deprecatingly, ‘What am I, retarded?”
I am so sorry.
Of course, I stopped using that kind of language, but I am terribly ashamed that I ever did. I never meant to hurt anyone. But I did. I must have. I am so sorry that I led anyone to believe that using those words was anything less than unconscionable.
Words can hurt. They do hurt.
I am so sorry.
In time I asked my friends to stop using that language. I knew I was asking a lot. I know how easy it can be to throw those words around. They are ubiquitous. They are accepted. I worried that they’d roll their eyes at me. That I’d be the heavy. The one with no sense of humor. The PC pain in the @ss. But I asked them anyway. I am so sorry I didn’t do that sooner.
I later asked my co-workers to be conscious of the words that they were using. In particular, I asked them to think about the ramifications of making ‘retard’ an acceptable term. To think about the world they were creating for our children. To see that it could NOT be OK. I am so sorry it took me so long to get up the courage to talk to them about it.
Words matter. They have the power to encourage, to create, to inspire. They also have the power to wound, to scar and to destroy. Please, please, think about your words. Think about the fact that you can’t take them back. Ever.
I am so sorry that I can’t take my thoughtless ‘jokes’ back. Not funny.
I think about the fact that so many of our children don’t have a voice of their own. They rely on us to speak for them. We have a responsibility to choose our words with extreme care.
So, in light of all of the talk about Tropic Thunder and its irresponsible use of the word ‘retard’, I come to you to ask (as a recovering dolt) that you think before you speak.
I haven’t seen the movie. I likely won’t see it. I have enough in my life that makes me squirm; I don’t need to pay for more.
You make the choice. But if you do see it, please see it thoughtfully. Think about its impact. And talk to your children about why their words have so much value and so much power.
How do you want them to use their words?
How will you use yours?