Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Words that Wound
I remember the first time I ever noticed that some children were born differently. I was at a new school and I was filled with both wonder and fear. Not just about a new school, or other children. Everything scared me. Having lived a life of virtual solitude the stimulus of it all overwhelmed me. I was a quiet child, watching everything. Measuring the threat level of everywhere I went. So, when we were led down into the basement of, what to me was a giant, dark tomb of a building, I was already fearful. I noticed them almost immediately. They were at the other end of the long, low space. Someones brilliant idea of the perfect place to unleash children in the winter months. In my mind it was very dark, which I am sure added to my perception of these new creatures. No matter how dim it was, it could not hide the fact that they were different. I remember one day edging closer...they were always kept away from us and I did not know why. There was one boy, with a red padded helmet and as I watched transfixed, he stood very close to the concrete wall and banged his head on the flat cold surface. I ran to my teacher, filled with confusion and afraid for this other child. I pointed him out and begged her to help him. She waved me off dismissively and said that he was retarded.
I tried to ask her what that meant. She was done with me. She told me to stay at my own end of the play area (that is what they called it) and to go play or sit with my back to the wall in the corner. She stared me down, waiting for me to decide my own fate. It took a long time for me to ask my mother. She was not one to take questioning well. She would rather we were still. It was the school's role to educate us. Finely I did ask and she to her own credit, explained that this meant that these children had had some part of their development retarded and something in her words, I truthfully do not remember them in detail, that made me think they were doomed. Or somehow broken or less than. But she did say, that I was not to use that word. And with that I had my full education of children with special needs.
I remember that they kept them in a separate part of the school. They ate before us, so we did not share the cafeteria with them. I once was sent to pass a note from the office to one of their teachers. I had never been down that part of the school. Where our hallways were decorated with craft paper turkeys and colorful paper plates painted with happy scenes, here they were bare. I could hear them before I ever opened the door. It was all strange noises. That filled me with even more fear. Guttural outbursts and loud voices I could not understand. I tried to look down and not stare at them and give the little yellow paper to the stern teacher and then as the door closed behind me, I ran. We were not allowed to run in the hallways and I was always one to follow the rules. But, not that time. I ran for the safety of happy pictures of happy children and the quiet comfort of a classroom mored in controlled discipline.
I never thought much of those children again. My life was full of so many of my own challenges. It would not be until I had my own children and volunteered in their schools that would I find out the bittersweet joy of actually knowing a special needs child. Her name was Kara. She was in a special little wheelchair that had a little cushion to support her head. I would read to the children. That was my special talent. I loved to teach them words and introduce them to the magic that lived in books. Every Wednesday I sat down with the children one on one and helped them understand how a string of letters became something more. I had seen Kara, I had smiled at her and held eye contact. My son seemed to love her. It was while sitting with her and silently puzzling in my head how to help teach this child. I had no idea what she knew or could do. She was a clever little minx. She smiled and laughed and understood my words. She may not be able to speak clearly, but she had no trouble absorbing the lessons.
She became one of my favorites. She seemed always to be smiling. I did not know, when I sat down with her that first time, remembering the only experiences I had ever had with such a child, that she would be the one to teach me. She was not interested in limits that others had set for her. She could not run or even stand, but she was far freer than so many adults. There came a day when I would be called into the office. My son, who was a middle child and very much a loving soul, had gotten into a fight. Through telling and retelling the events of the day it was reported that one of my son's favorite things was being chosen to help Kara navigate around at recess. Times had changed greatly from when I was a child. And it was while doing this that some other child had used the "R" word. I had never talked to my children about it's use. I think their teachers must have taught them. I had not thought of that word or it's loaded meaning for a child's lifetime. My son had first stood up for Kara and then there was pushing, which of course is how we all landed there in that room discussing it.
I had taught my son to keep his hands on his own body and it was not like him to be physical. I remember that he got off with a warning and that I told him that it was not okay to push people and he answered me with a child's simple truth. "It is not okay to call Kara that. She is not retarded. She is my friend." We would as a family have the opportunities to get to know and love many children of different levels of special needs. They have enriched all of our lives. There are words that are so egregious, so harmful that they should not be uttered. Surely, when this particular word was first used to describe a set of challenges a child may be born with, I would like to think it was not meant to be offensive. However, like so many other seemingly benign labels that have come to mean something far different than their origins, this word has come to mean less than, not worthy, stupid and a slew of other evil connotations which should never be said to or about anyone. Most especially not the sweet spirited souls who every day live beyond limits that their bodies and minds may try to set for them. I have a deep love and respect for both these children and their strong, brave parents. Who, not only have to deal with the day to day demands of bodies that do not move on their own, or children who will never say " I love you mama, daddy" and my hear breaks for them. I hold them in the highest esteem for the daily trials that we will never fully understand. We cannot. I can relate to a harried mother who's two year old will not eat his food or take his nap. That I understand. But that mother or father who will never know the joy of a day with no accidents. Or the promise of all of those special dreams we hold out for our children. Little league and training wheels, first dates and proms. They let go of many of these dreams that die ever so slowly when faced with this worlds realities.
I think of all these things and I am overcome. I cannot for the life of me grasp the depth of strength of pure will power to deal with this jaded world that would think it appropriate to use such language. I would not make it through the stares and rude comments, there is no way I would stay out of jail if someone dared to use such a diminishing hateful word in front of my child or myself. We all carry our challenges, our own special needs. Most of us can hide them. We are all broken and we all suffer. Ladling out pain to others will never lessen our own. Ignorance is no excuse for throwing out hate. In case you have not been told, incase you did not know... it is never okay to call anyone, in any context "retarded". Remember that words have power. And you are a compilation of your thoughts, deeds and words. The next time you see a parent out and about, trying to have a normal life just running errands with a child who may never walk or talk or sing, show compassion. Give them a smile, a kind word a place ahead of you in line. Send up words of prayer for them and their family. You may not even realize the harm you inflict with a side glance and a grimace or a downward stare. These are tiny paper cuts. But using the "r" word is purely hateful and for that you have no excuse. When given the choice be kind. Life is hard enough, do not add to another's burden.