Thursday, March 8, 2012

The "R" word

I keep thinking about Barry, a boy I barely knew. Older than me, he lived in an adjacent neighborhood. I mostly saw him from a distance in the summer, usually late in the day as he ran down the hill to the neighborhood pool, armed with a bar of soap and a big smile.

I was told he was retarded. I didn’t quite know what it meant, but by the way it was said, I knew it wasn’t good. Barry never bothered anyone. He never hurt anyone. He seemed content in his solitary water play. Still, I remember kids laughing and pointing and taunting in their singsong way, “Barry is a re-tard. Barry is a re-tard.”

Barry understood enough to know he was the target of cruel words. Sometimes he tried to chase the kids to make them stop. Other times he just played in the water with his soap and bubbles.

I wondered about Barry with a mixture of curiosity and sadness. Where was his mother? Why couldn’t he play with the other kids? Why were people mean to him? Did he ever cry? I was too young to understand that differences cause fear and fear causes ignorant behavior.

And then one day, I didn’t see Barry any more and I eventually forgot about him.

During college and my later adult years the word “retard” seemed to be part of everyone's vocabulary. Hardly a day went by without hearing, “I'm such a retard,” or an exclamation,  “That’s so retarded!” No one seemed to notice the demeaning nature of this expression. I certainly didn’t think of Barry.

But then along came Sam, followed by the inevitable day I noticed kids looking at Sam as they had looked at Barry. I heard the first snickers. I watched the kids point and laugh. It didn't take long to flash back to Barry.

Around this time I first heard talk of banning the “R” word. At first I ignored the conversation. It takes effort to change. It takes courage to take a stand. I rationalized and convinced myself it was just a word. A word that would soon be replaced with an equally demeaning word.

Still, I listened to the conversations. The arguments. It took a while but but I finally understood. If I was to look Sam in the eyes, I had to speak out against the word.

This is about  more than words. It's about devaluing people. Any people. This goes well beyond word "retard." It's about respect. We are all worthy of respect. We deserve better than social, ethnic or religious slurs. For those reasons I had to take the pledge to ban not just the “R” word, but also any hurtful word.

The next time you carelessly say “retard” or – any other degrading or devaluing word, please remember kids like Barry and my Sam. And think. With over a quarter of a million words to choose from, surely there is a better choice. 

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  1. BRAVO!
    You could do a post like this about so many horrible words, but this is one of my all-time most hated.

  2. I had a "Barry" in my early high school years too, and one day when Nicky was about 7 I had a flashback and I burst into tears and cried for about half an hour because the sadness I felt was overwhelming. He was so, so isolated all the time. The "R" word never always made me cringe. Thank you for posting this awareness piece - so, so important!

    1. Thanks for saying that. I think many of us knew a "Barry" and you are right, the isolation was heartbreaking. That, and the way kids were taught to be so fearful, isolating him even more.