Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The struggle at work with the word "retard"

Ever since Eslea was born, I began paying closer attention to the language that others use. Not only in reference to Eslea herself, but in regards to the world, situations, items. One of the words that has continued to irritate the depth of my soul is the word "retard". This is a word that not so long ago I myself would so easily throw off the tip of my tongue. Yet now, I find it disheartening how easily the word is tossed around where I work. I know that seems impossible that the word can be used found so freely, but it's true. Because for those that do not know, I work in a high school as a counselor.

As today, "Spread the Word to End the Word" day, edged closer I started thinking more about how that word is impacting my life and how often I hear it. Yesterday I decided to just hear for myself how often the word is used. So as I was walking to visit a teacher's classroom, I took time to listen closely to the conversations of those students around me. What I found was that in the span of just 5 minutes, I heard 3 separate conversations with students that used the word: "Man, you a retard" "That was so retarded" "She's retarded". That was three times in only five minutes, taking place in a very small span of hallway in a large high school of almost 2000 students. Three times. Five minutes.
Each time the word was used, I shuddered just a little bit. I could not help but imagine that they were directly referring to my beautiful Eslea. That whatever they were talking about they found so witless or unintelligent that they felt the need to compare it to a human being. Not just any human being, but one like my daughter. My sweet Eslea.

Now, these are good kids. If I would have approached them and asked them if they realized it was demeaning and hurtful to my daughter, they would have apologized. Because these kids know me and they have seen pictures of Eslea. They would never do anything to hurt her or I intentionally. Yet, they are oblivious to the fact that using that word is as wounding to me as if they said it about Eslea herself.

There are so many words out there that are demeaning. To them this may seem like yet another word we are adding to those that are inappropriate.  How do I address this? How do I stop it? In a school where the students throw out derogatory words as easily as week old milk, how do I get them to understand?

I had some time this morning alone while Eslea slept and I spent that time pondering those questions.
Basically it all boils down to awareness. Being aware of how our words can impact others.
And this is what I have come up with so far...

1. Our school has participated in "Mix it Up" day for the past few years. This year I can talk with the coordinator about making sure to include the Special Needs classrooms in with the lunchroom activities.

2. I can work towards having opportunities where more students can buddy with a student from the special needs classroom. Maybe in the art or PE class times.

3. Taking time to directly address one student at a time is tricky. I would not want to embarrass a student in front of friends by correcting language because this is a sure way to make a student defensive. Instead, I will make an effort to try and speak with several students privately. Of course this way only reaches one student at at time, yet as we all know, information can spread from student to student like wildfire when in the ears and mouths of high school students.

4. I am asking you, all my friends to share this information. If you are one of my work friends, take time to talk to your students about language and how stereotypes swell by the words we chose.

That's it. Those are my ideas. I would love to hear other ideas and know what you would do if you worked around such a large group of students all day. Heck, I would love to hear anything you're doing to make a change to "End the Word". If you blogged about the r-word yourself, make sure to post your blog in the comment sections so all readers can have the chance to read different viewpoints.

And with that, a video...
(scroll down to pause the music)

Thank you for taking the time to make a difference.
Buggie and all our special kiddos are grateful.


  1. Hi Erin.

    I applaud your efforts to put an end to this kind of language..."to spread the word to end the word."

    I think your ideas are fantastic and I also want to give you kudos for handling this particular situation with such dignity and grace AND preserving the dignity and grace of those you heard speaking the "r-word".

    And while it's definitely never too late to begin changing one's speaking habits (heck, that's why so many I know "give up" cursing for Lent!), we need this same message spread throughout the grade schools. I had to step in countless times to gently correct inappropriate language in my 3rd grade classroom...a bit tricky to do when it comes to explaining why we don't use the word "gay"...always wanted to be careful to not overstep my boundaries as teacher and not parent. I usually teamed up with the school guidance counselor to do a lesson on hurtful words/name calling.

    In a nutshell (for your other readers) it looks like this...

    Give each student (or your own children) a piece of tinfoil cut into the shape of a heart. Have them ball up the tinfoil to represent a time that they, personally, were hurt by words...whether it be name calling, gossip, teasing, etc.

    Next, have each child "smooth" out that piece of tinfoil. What they will see, is that even though their heart is back to its original shape, the creases or "scars" run so deep as to never truly be gone. Each hurtful word damages are hearts a tiny bit. We never want to do that to someone else's heart.

    I truly believe that this kind of change needs to begin in the home at the earliest of ages (but, again we as educators should certainly not try to correct behaviors!). Pope John Paul II coined the phrase, "Culture of Death." To me, "retard" is the perfect example of our society's "culture of death." That we as a society have become so sloppy with our words and language that we might just call something silly/dumb/etc. "retarded" is an insult to all those that posses any particular type of syndrome, and is insulting to their family members as well. We must teach our little ones that ALL of life is precious and created in the image and likeness of God.

    As a society, we must do better! We all deserve it! (My... this turned into a novel. I apologize!)

    Blessings to you Erin,

  2. My husband is a high school teacher and they did an awareness day last year. He said it made the kids use it more. :/

    I just wrote a very scattered post myself.

    We just gotta keep tryin'.

  3. Amazing, amazing post, Erin. Wow, that's staggering. I'm so glad you're in such a perfect position to make a difference with those students. Awareness begins with them...let them carry it out into the world with them, and they will definitely help to make it a better place for our children.

  4. Great post! I am not around large groups of people or kids often...But by teaching my own five children the hurts this word can cause I hope they will set an example to thier peers, and even if we just teach one person at a time we are making progress.

  5. Erin, I was directed to your blog by a mutual friend's Facebook post. I am a special education teacher in an elementary school, and I hear the "r-word" far more than I would like. I feel like you have a unique perspective, of being both a parent AND a teacher, that the students you work with may value. Perhaps if you were willing to share your own experiences with the students they would feel more compelled to think before they speak. Your story (and Eslea's) could be a more personal link that helps them relate the word to a real person. A beautiful person. A person they didn't realize they were hurting indirectly by carelessly throwing a word around in careless conversation.

    I guarantee that most of those students you overheard wouldn't even remember saying that word if you asked them about it now. However, it has stuck with you. Maybe they need to hear that, as well as WHY it has stuck with you.

    Putting personal experiences with situations can be much more effective than just telling kids they shouldn't say that word. You won't reach them all, but even if you make just a few of them stop and think, you've made a difference. In their lives, in your life, and in Eslea's life. Good luck to you! :)