This morning Kevin texted me from school saying that he had had a run-in with someone about the use of the word “retarded.” That someone was Kevin’s favorite teacher.
I don’t know why, but it still blows me away how prevalent the use of such language is even among teachers – educated grown-ups who are supposed to be role models, who it would seem should be sensitive to this kind of thing merely by virtue of being exposed daily to diverse populations.
It’s always disheartening to hear this slur thrown around, but even more so when it comes from the mouth of someone you look up to, so when Kevin told me this, my heart hurt for him because I know how much he admires this particular teacher.
But this incident had a positive outcome, as Kevin told me later when he got home from school. And in order to share it with all of you, he put it to paper as well:
So, I was in English class today, and we’re reading Macbeth and discussing all this stuff about… uh… whatever it is that Shakespeare meant to be discussed one day.
And we’re interpreting… something. Yeah.
And Mr. *any similarities to persons living or dead is not entirely coincidental* (aka my favorite teacher) calls on So-and-So to interpret the something.
“Oh… I don’t know,” she stammers.
“Come on!” Mr. ———- laughs. “We just discussed this! You’re not retarded!”
(Something along those lines… this conversation has been adapted from my “not-perfect” memory.)
Laughing ensues, some protesting (not at the use of the word, I think, but to the alleged insult.)
Mr. ———- chuckles, and says, “Well I’m not calling her retarded, I said she isn’t.”
“Okay, I’m sorry for alleging to your retardedness.”
I stayed silent.
Well, I would be silent anyway, becauthe I had my retainer in and I thound rethiculouth wearing it.
But I was silent, mulling over what had just been said.
Mr. ———- should know perfectly well what he just said. Our first required novel of the year was Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, a story about two grown men trying to make a living during the Great Depression, one of them developmentally disabled. Furthermore, one of our vocabulary terms way early in the year had been “derogatory,” and he had spent some time going over that particular term, using his own Italian heritage as an example.
So he definitely knew what it meant, and had disregarded it. For what reasons? Just slipped out, maybe? An attempt at humor on a teenage level? (like Mr. Jafari?)
Whatever the reason, this man who I looked up to (and still do, as you’ll see), just lost a lot of respect from a certain student.
I made up my mind right then to say something to him.
The remaining minutes of class flew by, and finally Mr. ———– ended the lesson, leaving us some five minutes of free time before the bell.
I chatted with a friend, and when the bell rang, I stayed behind until everyone had cleared out.
I walked up to him (quite nervously).
Casually, I said, “Hey, Mr. I…” (commonly called by one initial, his last name is a bit lengthy.)
“Yes?” he said in his always-friendly tone. “Something to ask me?”
“No, actually, something to tell you.”
His face held a funny surprised look, and I laughed in spite of myself.
“What is it?” he inquired.
“I hope I’m not going to get in trouble for this…” I murmured, and then spoke up, forcing myself to not beat around the bush.
“The thing is, you’re probably my favorite teacher. But today… I’m sorry to say, I lost a lot of respect for you.”
He gave a rueful smile. “It was me saying ‘retarded’, wasn’t it?”
“Well, yes.” I said.
I don’t remember the exact words from this point, but I told him how as a teacher, as an adult, just as a human being, he should know better. He knew exactly what I meant, and he didn’t deny it or make excuses. I explained how it offended certain people, and as a human being, that type of language should be avoided anyway. I told him that I have a brother with Down syndrome, and he understood. And he told me I definitely wasn’t in trouble. And he then did two things that restored my respect for him.
First, he promised an apology to the entire class tomorrow.
Second, he gave me a genuine “thank-you.”
We smiled at each other.
I stuck out my hand.
He shook it.
That Kevin, he’s quite a kid, isn’t he?