I am fetching one of my teaching props, or retreating to the whiteboard to make a quick diagram … just doing something besides speaking at the moment, when one of my students accidentally knocks over her soda can.
“Sorry! Just a retarded moment there,” she apologises into the sudden quiet, snatching the can upright and then grabbing some tissues from her purse to blot up the dribbles.
I freeze. Suddenly at a loss for words. Not for a lack of things wanting to say, but for having too many things to say, and everything getting into a verbal logjam.
All the momentum of being in my teaching-presenting groove evaporates. It literally evaporates, leaving my skin all clammy, and a chill jolts up from my tailbone, snapping my head and shoulder back in one big tic. My hasty breakfast curdles in my gut as I have visceral flashbacks of childhood abuse.
Omigawd I hate the R-word. I hate being called a Re-tard.
To retard means to hinder or delay. Various of my scholastic and social achievements have been delayed, but that never made the word appropriate. In the vernacular it’s meant as a slur, an insult, an assertion that someone is of subnormal intelligence. It’s the N-word of special education. Once-upon-a-time the word acquired a specific diagnostic meaning; someone who was “mentally retarded” had an IQ of less than 70. But whether or not the term is, or was, applicable to me or anyone else present is not the issue. Not even, and especially not, people with cognitive impairments or learning disabilities want to be called Retards.
She had not called me retarded. She hadn’t even directed the comment at anyone else. I would be extremely upset if she had.
But all of my responses are clogged up together in my verbal output buffer:
Don’t say THAT WORD.
I hate that word.
She wasn’t meaning to be rude; it was simply meant to describe a clumsy moment.
I should speak up and tell her not to use that word; it’s rude and disrespectful.
She’s already embarrassed; that would just compound it if I corrected her in front of everyone.
Jeez I farging hate that word.
I should speak up–
“We all have moments like this,” I start to say, referring to the accidental spillage. And then my brain’s all a-whirl with considerations about social responsibility, and advocacy, and the roles of instructor and student, and the vagaries of linguistics, and how to phrase things declaratively but without being hostile, and …
I couldn’t get any more words out on the subject. That happens sometimes. I don’t like it. I feel … stupid.
Meanwhile, the students have shifted their attention from this brief distraction that, in reality, only lasted 15 or 20 seconds, back to the ongoing program. I’m mentally groping for What should I do next? and need to not get irrevocably Stuck in the moment, socially frozen there, non-speaking and rocking where I stand. I hit the right-arrow key to advance to the next PowerPoint slide. Technology as crutch. I stare at the computer screen, forcibly dragging my attention back on track — what’s next in the spiel?
After class I am sorting out the paperwork and packing back up my Big Bag O’ Props. I am chewing over the lost opportunity. I should have said more. I wanted to say more. But unlike the presentations that I have done dozens of times over, even when I was ill and running on that glazed-over forcefully-cheerful autopilot mode that all stage veterans know, for this moment I had no scripts.
Scripts. I rely upon scripted conversation more than I like to acknowledge that I do. “Small talk” is awkwardly scripted, and those scripts have an alarming tendency to do a 404 Error from my mental RAM. Presentations are largely scripted, though not to the point of being unable to include asides to questions, or to reference previous remarks by students to help them connect concepts. Everyday home chatter is fairly impromptu, but we all know that parents in general also have a stock of some 50 sayings that they use over and over.
I drop off the required paperwork, and schlep my gear out to the car, replaying the scene in my mind. Once I’m in the safe, semi-private zone of my automobile, I start practicing new scripts.
“Please — don’t say that word. It’s rude and disrespectful. Even if you didn’t mean to be rude, it still hurts.”
You can hear the protests already. People always make the same stupid protests, Oh, I didn’t really mean it. It’s not like that. It’s just a saying. I was just joking — can’t you take a joke? You don’t have to take it personally. See — no one cares.
You cannot deny it.
You cannot dismiss it.
You cannot diminish it.
No, it’s NOT “just a saying”. It’s an insult stemming from prejudice. Using that word in such a way continues that prejudice.
No, it’s NOT “just a joke”. Using it continues the abuse of disabled people by ridiculing and Othering them.
No, people DO care — I’m a person, and I care. I’m not the only one who cares.
How else would I take it, impersonally?
“Don’t say that word. It still hurts. I don’t like it. STOP.”