In fifth grade I was at the same grade school as my 2nd grade brother with special needs. One of his classmates, we will call him Matt, was a fifth grader and also my classmate. Matt could walk, understood most speech and could speak in short strings of words. He got to attend art, PE, recess and a few other things with my fifth grade class. Because of his ties to my brother and my fondness of people who get to experience life differently, I wanted to be Matt’s friend. Matt was tolerant of when I would try to talk with him, but he was most fond of the prettiest girl in the class. She had two pretty friends, and Matt always wanted to be with those girls at lunch. The girls didn’t want the same thing. After a few weeks of Matt sitting with their lunch table as often as he could, the girls found a day when they weren’t monitored to try to change their situation.
Most of the kids, including me, had left for recess. The girls stayed behind, and so did Matt. Matt wanted to pretend he was a dog and have the girls pamper him. It was one of his favorite games. When there were no adults nearby, one of the girls took Matt’s milk carton, and threw it on the floor. She said “there, if you want to be a dog, go eat where a dog eats – off the floor!”
The girls laughed, and further continued the charade, prompting Matt to act in ways they laughed at.
One of the girls at the table told on the others after school. My teacher called me to her desk the next day and asked me to stay before heading to the next area. When we were alone, she told me she thought I was a mature and kind young lady, and asked me what I would do if someone made fun of my brother. I thought about it and told her I’d ask them politely to stop and tell them about my brother so they were more informed and saw him as a person they could care about.
She complimented me, but wanted more. “What if that person wouldn’t stop making fun of your brother? Or what if they took his food and threw it away from him and told him to get it?”
My answer was quicker – “If someone did that, I might just beat them up.” She smiled.
I asked timidly “Is that an okay thing to do?”
I remember her words because I had to think a lot about them. She said something like “Well, you’re his sister. Sometimes when someone can’t defend themselves, someone capable has to stand up for them. You are capable of standing up for your brother in many ways, although you are smart enough you probably don’t have to hit anyone.”
I stood with my hand on my hip and pursed my lips. “Yea Mrs. Morrell, you might be right. But if someone did make fun of my brother like that, I’d really want to hit them.”
“I understand that feeling, Darcy. Would you do a favor for me? Before we go to lunch, will you tell your classmates how you feel about your brother and how’d you’d feel if someone made fun of him or did something like threw his food?”
I agreed. And before we went to lunch, I stood in front of the class and told them how much I loved my brother Dustin, how important he was to my family, and how it hurt me when someone made fun of my brother regardless of whether or not he could understand it. I told my class how I hated the word “retarded”, even when it didn’t refer to a person or was used to mean that something was disliked. I asked them not to say something like “this homework is retarded” because it implied that someone who was mentally handicapped, or perhaps what some would call “retarded”, was universally disliked enough to be a common insult to anything someone didn’t like. I felt good about what I said.
Then my teacher pushed me. “Darcy, what would you do if someone continuously made fun of your brother? What would you do if someone did embarrassing things to him and threw his food?”
I pictured someone making fun of my brother when she said it. I pounded my fist into my hand, pushed my lips together hard, and said “I’d punch them, right in the face, if they messed with my brother that way.”
I think I had some adrenaline in me as a fifth grader in front of the class. I didn’t generally talk like that.
My smiling teacher thanked me and sent me to my seat. Then she lost her smile. I didn’t know what had happened to Matt the day before. She didn’t tell me. She went to the front of the classroom and sternly told everyone what happened to Matt. She didn’t say who had done those things to Matt, but I knew who Matt always wanted to sit with, and I knew they didn’t genuinely like him enough to treat him decently. My anger flared inside my nostrils and my face got hot. Mrs. Morrell asked me if I thought it was right that someone told Matt to lick milk off the ground to be accepted.
I shook my head in disgust, “No one should ever disrespect the dignity of someone like that. It isn’t right.” I looked right at the most popular, pretty girl in the classroom and stared at her. I shook my head and huffed. “That was terribly mean.” Before that day we might have passed as friends; after that day we became rivals.
When we went to the middle school the next year, she turned her friends against me. She and her friends made fun of me for things like not shaving my legs or how I brushed my hair. She made middle school a terrible social experience for me. I knew it was that day that the tables turned, and I knew it was because I had disapproved of her in class and glared at her as everyone watched.
I’ll tell you the honest truth – I shut up about defending the dignity of people like my brother during middle school a little. My brother was no longer at the same school as me and I knew from experience that my defense may bring retaliation I couldn’t fight.
Fast forward a few years to my freshman year of basketball in a different school system. My family came to almost all of my games. We were new in town, and at the games was one of the only places people got to meet my brother. I didn’t know some of the girls very well outside of basketball, and one girl who I didn’t have any classes with but competed for a starting spot with didn’t care for me much. We went to a game in Great Bend. My grandmother’s second husband has a son here who lives at Rosewood Services, a group home that helps care for him. My family showed up with my brother in his wheelchair and my uncle, who is about 5’2 and has a face many regard as different upon first glance. My father held my uncle’s hand to help him walk to the stands. When the team walked in my dad said “Go Mustangs!” and my family cheered. My uncle clapped enthusiastically and laughed in enjoyment.
The girl who I competed with for a starting spot saw him, looked at her friend and said “What, is it a whole family of retards?”
I kept walking, pretending I didn’t hear.
I’ve played that moment over and over again in my life since it happened. I was a freshman girl, new in town and a far cry from popular. I didn’t have many friends, and I certainly wasn’t at the top of the social totem pole for athletics. But someone insulted my family in perhaps the worst way they could and I pretended it didn’t happen.
I didn’t hate the girl for saying it, in fact we’d pass as friends by my senior year when more people tended to like me, but I hated myself in that moment for not having the strength to speak up.
I sat in the locker room that night after my teammate called my family a “family of retards” and thought about my grade school experience. We moved a lot because my dad was in the Air Force, and it seemed like every time we moved I’d run into someone else who was ignorant of how to be kind and empathetic to those who live differently. I’d been burned by vocally challenging such behavior in the past. My social standing was terrible in middle school because I made the mean girls mad defending someone who couldn’t defend themselves. I wasn’t brave enough to do it again at the start of my high school career, even when it was my family being insulted. I accepted her calling my brother and uncle retards. I accepted that she disliked me in a way that made her want to call me a retard. I didn’t even think of what she was implying about the parents of a child with special needs. I wanted to pretend I didn’t exist, I didn’t have ears, and that I was too invisible to speak.
I failed my values in that moment, and I know why. Silence was pragmatic. I was better off not defending those who couldn’t defend themselves, so I didn’t. I should have, but as a freshman girl, I didn’t have the courage.
I hope today that I stand somewhere in the middle of those two extremes of my youth. I know I can’t punch someone in the face for insulting anyone. I know I can’t be silent.
It’s hard to know where to stand though.
As a teacher, in the first few days I always told my students they weren’t allowed to use the word retarded. I’d tell them why and show them a picture of my brother. Inside my classroom I was happy promoting awareness and empathy.
I didn’t always correct a coworker who said something like “This meeting is retarded.” I’m still something of a timid social advocate, I suppose. Though I will admit, with what I write about or post on Facebook, I think people know better than to say “retarded” around me. I haven’t heard the word lately.
One of my best friends use to say “retarded” often. I told him I didn’t like.
He said “It’s just something people say. Don’t be so sensitive about it.”
I told him “It’s not just something people say; it’s something ignorant people say.” I had to say something like that over several months, but now the word isn’t in his active vocabulary. But I know saying something like that causes tension in a relationship. I’m not always brave enough or inclined to correct people’s language.
That’s why when I saw this Facebook post the other day I was taken aback and inspired. You go daddy Kelly. You go. I know those are complicated emotions and loaded feelings. There are moments I look back on and wish I was as brave and confident as you are.