words matter -or- they're both fish



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!”

Yes, seriously.

(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?

22 thoughts on “words matter -or- they're both fish

  1. Go easy on my friend (you!). She’s a work in progress. She’s a woman who can take a free iPod, valued at a couple hundred bucks, and turn it into $10,000 that REALLY matter.

  2. It took you that long to figure out that they were both fish?

    I love you.

    And yes, I have those sorry, shameful memories, too – I used use the word “Ritardando” (from the musical Ritard) to describe myself, people.


    But we move on.

  3. I work in Jess’s little microcosm where the ‘R’ word and the short bus jokes and the endless belittling are not only accepted and commonplace but seemingly part of the job desciption. A while back Jess had the ‘R’ word talk with me and I honestly can’t remember if it was b/c I used it (likely) or b/c I was talking about someone who did. So I started monitoring what I said and it was utterly unconscionable how often my initial reaction to anything was off-color and mindless. Jess has been effective at my parents early attempts to teach me to think before I speak which admittedly was/is a monumental task. It’s unacceptable to use it yourself and unacceptable to allow others to use it and get away with it in your presence…Jess says it best, words can hurt.

  4. and i love you for that. but, since there are people who read this who know the story, i’ll pre-emptively throw myself under that bus and tell you that it’s true (though i give you credit for assuming that i exaggerate.)

    i did leave out the mitigating factor of alcohol, but this is a family show.

  5. So instead of forwarding my tirade to my address book, think I’ll just forward yours.

    I’m also guilty as charged.

    But I don’t do that it anymore.

    Because I live with the implications.

    As do you.

    Once again, beautifully done.

  6. Thanks for using YOUR words, Jess. My one and only most adorable niece (the daughter of my sister and very best friend) has Down Syndrome. (That’s why when I read your blog, I feel like we’re on the same ride. And why I encourage my sister to read it, too.)

    When someone uses the R word (and *trust* me, I have been so SO guilty of it in the past), I burn. People obviously don’t know the complex DELIGHT that my darling Avery is or they wouldn’t be so quick to use that misnomer–about anyone, ever.

    What makes me burst with pride is that our little superstars, Avery and Brooke, MAKE. US. BETTER. PEOPLE. Damn. If we could all do something even half as noble….

  7. “It is not whether your words or actions are tough or gentle; it is the spirit behind your actions and words that announces your inner state.” -Chin Ning Chu

  8. dopey –

    while i would agree that the spirit behind one’s actions and words matters (and obviously drives and informs the same); i find it absurd to deny that by definition it is one’s actions and words that serve to ‘announce’ one’s inner state.

    particularly when one sits anonymously behind a keyboard. here in the ether, the ONLY anouncements of our innner intention are our words.

    i’m just sayin

  9. A side note – when my NT DD7 had the option of riding the short bus with DS9 or riding the ‘regular’ bus, she chose the short bus because ‘everyone is so much nicer!’ Shhh, don’t tell. If everyone knew how great the short bus is, they’d all want to ride it!

    And I do think there is going to be significant reduction of use for that word especially in the next generation…adults now have to consciously stop using it but children – if they don’t hear it used – will never use it either.

  10. Jess – I found your blog a while ago, and fell in love with you and your family (in a nice harmless, not stalkerish-i-will-find-out-where-you-live way.
    Reading this post made me uncomfortable. How could you say those things blah blah blah. And I realized… I grew up with a severe dislike for that word. Not because I am holier than thou, but because my cousin was mentally retarded. That was his diagnoses back then. So I never used the word, and cringe when I hear it. And sometimes call people out on it.

    BUT you made me realize that if not for my cousin, I probably would have used the word all along. Just like you. And just like so many others. who.just.don’t.know.

    Thanks for opening my eyes.

    OH – on another note, did you know that the commericial for SLEEPY’s mattresses:
    cue the music… sleepy’s….for the REST of your life…
    has 2 meanings for the word REST?
    I felt so darn clever when I figured it out!

    • not to get all maya angelou on ya, but .. when we know better we do better. that’s the whole point for me of doing all this. and yes, rest has two meanings 🙂

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