The other day, Charlie turned to me matter of factly and said, “Mom, I know what the “S” word is. I found out during my playdate today.” “Crap,” I thought to myself. Were six year olds already discussing bad words with one another? My mind drifted to the first time I remember hearing my own first bad word.
“Oh, that’s Billy’s brother, he is retarded.” I had just asked a neighborhood kid about the boy who spent more time in his driveway playing with pebbles by himself than playing with other kids. It was around 1977 and my family and I had just returned to Illinois from living abroad in Islamabad, Pakistan. At that time, the “R” word was not considered bad by any stretch. Rather, it was used freely, rarely raising an eyebrow.
In subsequent years, the word “retarded” has become politically incorrect, yet its casual and offensive use persists. However, two years ago 14-year-old Nick Marcellino, whose sister, Rosa, has Down’s Syndrome, decided to do something. Nick had grown fed up with other people’s comments about his sister. “That’s so retarded,” or “You’re such a retard” he would hear from both friends and strangers. According to Nick, “Even good kids use the word, not realizing that they’re talking about people like my sister.” Nick decided to campaign on behalf of Rosa and this ultimately led to his state legislature changing its laws to remove the term “mental retardation” and replace it with “individual with an intellectual disability.” This same effort generated national support and led to Congress passing “Rosa’s Law” which removed the term “mental retardation” from federal law. In essence, Nick and the Marcellino family had succeeded in changing the law to encourage people to stop using the hurtful term “retard.” Their efforts were clearly admirable. However, I couldn’t help wondering whether removing the term mental retardation from the law was realistically going to prevent other people from calling their sister retarded? Even if that term could be stripped miraculously from the language entirely, isn’t it possible and even likely that a new slang term would appear to describe Rosa and others like her? The Marcellino family’s effort may have been the understandable response, but can it ultimately achieve their goal? Was it the perfect response?
During a recent sermon, Rabbi Avi Friedman told a story about a girl who has a brother with special needs. In her presence, someone had called him retarded. She was deeply hurt. In response, the rabbi described how the girl made a YouTube video about her brother and how the word “retarded” impacts people. To date, more than 40,000 people have now viewed her video. The outcome? Those who have viewed the video will likely refrain from ever using the “R” word. While the girl did not get President Obama to sign a new law, her effort has the potential to achieve something even more transformative. Her video directly influenced people and touched them in a way no legislation could. As Rabbi Friedman advised, sometimes out of imperfection, comes the perfect response.
I love the idea that before we act in response to a problem, we take a moment to distinguish what would be the “understandable” versus the “perfect” response. Thinking back to my earlier blog, “Thoughts Beyond the Pom,” I consider the different possible responses cheerleading Coach Linda Fox and her squad could have made when they learned about Julia, a teen born with incomplete arms and no legs. Julia wanted to cheer with her Nebraska high school squad but was refused three times. Coach Fox and her squad could have given the understandable response and simply written Julia a letter of encouragement. But instead, they created a modified uniform for her and brought her to cheer with them over 800 miles away in Michigan. They made the perfect response.
Of course, not every situation demands a perfect response. Later in the day, when I was putting Charlie to bed, I asked him if he knew what the “S” word really meant. “Of course I do, Mom! It means “stupid!” Phew.