The r-word is, or at least it should be, obsolete.
Yet here I am, sitting in a gymnasium with 200 or so people, including my five- and ten-year-old daughters, hearing that word.
An elder in the league is giving the end-of-season speech. Several of his key points have grated on my nerves. He tells the kids it’s not how you play the game; it’s about winning. He explains that second place is one of the worst feelings (this just minutes before the 2nd place team would receive trophies). He shares that he won’t be staying after his speech because he can’t tolerate watching kids receive participation trophies. There are points I agree with in principle, but this certainly isn’t the time or place to lay out one’s qualms with our society. So I am already frustrated.
Twenty or so minutes into the speech, the r-word spills out of his mouth. How does one incorporate THAT word in an end-of-season celebratory speech? He says, “All the parents think their kids are gifted, and it’s funny because all of the kids think their parents are retarded!”
What? Surely I misunderstood him. Surely this well-respected man and beloved coach didn’t just use that word as comic relief in front of over 100 impressionable young players.
I am flabbergasted and physically ill.
As soon as we are buckled in the car, I bring up the speech. Gracie laments its lengthiness and lack of relevance to cheerleaders, but makes no mention of the dropping of that word. I tell my girls the use of the r-word is not appropriate in any setting. I never want to hear them use the word, especially in a name-calling fashion.
We talk about the power of words. After all, our evolution as a society can be witnessed by our vocabulary. In my little hometown, we house the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in the nation. It is a magnificently stoic building, featuring intricate stonework, built in the 1800s to serve as a sanctuary for the mentally ill, though back then the definition of mentally ill was very different. When the building was sold a few years ago, its new owners returned the building to its original name –the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Some members of the community were appalled. The term “lunatic” has a negative connotation; the thought was we should not be reverting to such derogatory terminology. The owners were determined to maintain as much of the building’s history as possible, and this was its authentic albeit uncomfortable title.
There are other powerful words visible in our community. The Weston Colored School in the center of town bears witness to this. A stone tablet imbedded in the upper center facade of the tiny one-room Mission-style building reads “Weston Colored School” in raised relief. From the time of its construction in 1882 until desegregation in 1954, it was used as an educational facility for the community’s African American youth. Several terms acceptable during those years, such as “colored” kids, are now rightfully considered offensive.
I remember teaching novels, like The Secret Life of Bees and The Help, and working hard to stamp out words that should be obsolete. Many times I said, “The character isn’t colored. She isn’t pink or purple or green. The proper term is black or, in formal situations, African American.” I dared to teach Huckberry Finn just once and vowed I would never teach a novel that uses the n-word repeatedly again, even if it was socially acceptable during that time in history.
I wonder if the senior citizen who spoke during that assembly even realizes the inappropriateness of his vocabulary. During most of his life, the r-word was an accepted label. Even during my childhood, the mentally, physically or emotionally impaired students were taught in an isolated classroom in the basement of our school. I cannot conjure up the face of a single one of those children because they lived in their own little bubble away from us. I do remember the teachers referring to them as the “retarded kids.” It wasn’t meant as a slur; it was simply the accepted label during that time.
I prefer to believe the speaker who used the r-word just didn’t know any better.
When we arrive home, I eagerly turn the television to CNN. Lately I have been somewhat addicted to the presidential race. I’ve never been incredibly into politics. Sure, I’ve paid attention and I’ve voted, but I haven’t watched nearly as many debates as a civic-minded person should have. This race is different though.
I watch CNN and FOX News with the same morbid curiosity as one passing a car wreck. We do not want to see, but at the same time, we struggle to look away.
This presidential race is loud and obnoxious. It’s a mixture of reality TV and platform with very little substance. It is, more than anything, embarrassing to explain to my children.
More and more often lately I’ve found myself repeating the same phrases to my children. We do not behave that way. I realize he is a presidential candidate, but we do not call people names. We do not mock people for the size of their ears. We certainly do not mimic the involuntary twitches of a person with a disability. We do not interrupt others. We do not yell. We do not use that word. We do not hate people because of their race or religion or beliefs. We do not stereotype.
And individuals running for such an important and honorable position should never, ever discuss the size of their “hands” on primetime television.
What does it say for our country when I can no longer watch the news or the presidential debates with my children in the room?
On Sunday, while my girls were not home, I flipped to a news station only to discover a beloved First Lady had passed away. Sadly, watching stories about Nancy Reagan’s life and passing was a relief, a much needed break from the ugliness of the presidential campaign.
I vaguely remember President Reagan. I was approaching four when he gave his inaugural address and was nearly twelve when his term ended. My great-grandma adored him. She watched every White House press conference and State of Union address with reverence. Possibly she was still a bit enamored with the floor model television, considering we hadn’t been in the age of colored broadcasting for many years — at least not in our house. Nonetheless, I learned to respect the presidency by watching Grandma model it.
What are my children learning by watching me during this presidential race? My reaction to the candidates’ words is usually embarrassment and explanation. The media has focused more on the outlandish soundbites than the real issues, and my children have heard me say this. As a voter, I feel obligated to study each candidate, but am I being respectful and responsible in my discussions around the dinner table?
I am not the example my grandmother was.
But I try. I talk to my girls about behaviors and words. I tell them about Nancy Reagan, who had strong opinions but always appeared gracious and charming. We talk about how after her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Nancy Reagan abandoned a few conservative beliefs and stood up for stem cell research to aid in the fight to find a cure. We talk about advocacy and the importance of finding purpose in painful situations. They connect her plight to ours.
This is the kind of role model I want for my daughters.
These are the conversations we should be having.
Strength. Grace. Respect. Advocacy. Empathy. Intelligence. Manners.
Words are powerful. They often define us as individuals and as a society. To hear the return of hurtful slurs in youth assemblies, even if intended in jest, or in social media clips by our future president is unacceptable. We must move forward, not backward.
Let us teach our children the value of vocabulary.
Our words are part of who we are.