It started as an innocent story told by a nice young man, and I was quietly smiling at the pleasant moment between him and my husband…and then there it was, one of the very few words I do NOT allow to be said in my house or near my kids “retarded”. He was speaking about how he felt someone was looking at him at that point in the story. I’m sure he didn’t actually mean that he believed they thought he was mentally challenged. He meant that they looked at him strangely, as if he was silly, unrefined, uncouth, or even loutish. I then heard a little voice say “what retarded?” Mr. N had heard him.
I called him away to talk to him, I knew he had not thought of what he was saying, especially in the context of where he was saying it. We spoke, I explained how there are very few things I’m not okay with being said in my house, but that word is certainly one of them. I watched his face change from confusion to surprise to remorseful as he listened to me explain why I am not accepting of that word being said in the way that it was.
I didn’t yell or rant, I wasn’t angry with him, not when I heard it, not when he looked surprised at first that I was saying it wasn’t allowed, not as I explained why. There was no anger in my heart because he truly is a sweet boy that adores my sons. He wouldn’t purposely hurt them, wouldn’t purposely, callously use a word society uses to mean “less than” wouldn’t degrade them by stating they were less than him. He was simply a teenager using a common slang word.
I don’t think he’ll choose that word again, I know that if it should pop into his thoughts after today his mind will conjure up a picture of my boys and what that word has the power to make society believe about those with special needs. And I know he’ll choose a different word. Because words truly do have power, power to shape how we perceive life, how we decide who is our equal, and who is not, and how we will treat both. I know he’ll choose other words that don’t demean the boys he adores, because he’s good person with a good heart, who is now more aware of why a common word should not be commonplace in our vocabularies.