But for our part, we are trying to awaken the world to the need for a new civil rights movement — of the heart. ~ Timothy Shriver
Ed note: Yes, I did actually write the following note to my colleague. Yes, I actually asked him to lean over and read it on my computer screen. Yes, I really am that much of a wimp and yes, it was a little bit odd.
But, as you’ll see if you choose to continue reading even after this somewhat bizarre introduction, I decided that I owed it to my girls – BOTH of my girls – to say something. And twenty-four hours later, I can tell you that I’m very glad I did.
Dear [colleague at my new job who sits right next to me and who has thus far proven himself by both reputation and deed to be a man of integrity, professionalism and compassion, but who I really don't know all that well after only six weeks],
OK, so despite the fact that you are approximately six inches from me, I’m wimping out and writing this instead of saying it because, well, I’m a wimp and I find this much easier.
I’d like to ask you a favor.
Earlier today you used the word ‘retarded’. It’s an easy go-to and one that I used casually for many years. But that changed four years ago when I had to register my daughter with the [State] Department of Mental Retardation (which thank God has since changed their name). The point was then driven home for me yet agin when she started at an integrated preschool and two of the most wonderful kids in her class had Down syndrome.
The thing is, I know that by absolutely no stretch of the imagination did you mean it maliciously, nor would you ever use it that way. Please know that I don’t mean to imply otherwise. But I have found that allowing the word to be an easily accessible part of our lexicon makes it easy for others to appropriate and misuse it.
Now here’s the thing. I likely wouldn’t have said anything but for this – my older daughter, [Katie] wrote the following just yesterday and I felt a responsibility to her to say something. I’m hoping that after you read it you’ll understand why I did. I sincerely hope this comes off the right way.
I truly appreciate your understanding.
The Saddest Word of All
by Katie, age 9
You know how Brooke says there are “sad words” right? Well, I think there really are some really, really sad words that I don’t think anybody should ever say. I mean, I know there are all the swears and grown-ups say them sometimes, but I’m not really talking about those. I’m talking about words that I don’t even think grown-ups should say either. OK, to the story.
I was at school the other day, packing up my bag to go home. There were two other people down at the lockers at that moment. There names were – well, I can’t say their real names, so I’ll make some up. Let’s go with, hmmm, Oliver and Billy. Well, they were talking about a boy (who we’ll call Zander, even though that’s not really his name) and I really didn’t like the way they were talking about him. They were saying really kind of mean things.
It’s true, Zander is not my favorite kid. He’s always trying to scare people even when they’re trying to be nice to him. But he IS a real person and he has feelings too. So even if he does things they don’t like, they wouldn’t be saying those things if he were standing there, so they really shouldn’t say it ever.
As I was packing, Oliver said something that made me REEEEEEEALLY angry. In his exact words, he said, “He must be retarded.”
I turned my head to him so fast that my hair hit my face really hard. But I didn’t care. I was so mad I had to say something. So I said, “You don’t say that word. If you’re going to say it again, I might have to tell Ms. C.”
And you know what he said back? He said, “Who cares? What’s so bad about saying retarded?”
That REALLY boiled me over. We had had lectures about this EXACT topic at LEAST twice this year. The principal, yes the PRINCIPAL, had talked about it over the intercom. Ms S, our school counselor had come into our classroom and talked about this whole thing. Ms C had also talked about this several times. So you see why I was mad. How could ANYBODY not know at this point?
But I didn’t know what to say so I went back to my locker and kept packing. That word ‘retarded’ stayed in my stomach all week. And it hurt. I always think of Brooke when people say that. Not in a bad way, in kind of a hurt way. My next door neighbor, “Natasha” had once come over to my house and we were all playing outside. My sister asked if she could play with us. It was kind of in a Brooke way, like “I would please play with you.” You know what Natasha said? She said, “No, she’s too dumb to play with us.” And when she told my sister that she couldn’t play, it hurt very badly.
At that time it might have been a little different because my sister couldn’t hear her or probably understand. But now that people are saying it IN SCHOOL and Brooke goes to the same school as me, I get a little nervous and scared that she’s going to come home one day and say, “What’s retarded?” because somebody called her that.
So you get the point, right? Why I’m really extra mad at Oliver (and still kinda mad at Natasha, even though she doesn’t do it anymore).
I really hope people don’t use that word about anybody. I just want the world to be a better place and I think it would be better WITHOUT that word in it.
Katie’s post can be found in its entirety at www.diaryofakatie.wordpress.com
Even before reading Katie’s post, he apologized profusely, which I assured him was not at all necessary. After he read it, he apologized some more. I told him yet again not to worry; my point was not to make him feel badly in any way. He then said, “I can’t promise I’ll never say it again. It’s pretty well engrained in my speech. But I swear I will try.”
I told him that was all I could ever ask, and I told him how grateful I was that he understood why I’d felt compelled to start the conversation.
I called Katie on my way home from work. I told her the story. I told her that I never would have had the courage to say something had it not been for HER courage. I told her how proud I was of her for forging the path, for making the people around her – including her mama – better people. I told her the ripples of the stone she’d thrown into the water would go far.
And as I hung up the phone, I quietly thanked God for the incredible teachers in my life and the endless, life-changing ripples they leave behind.