Working With Diverse Learners Removed the “R Word” From My Vocabulary

“That is so retarded…”

A phrase often used to colloquially express disapproval. You will hear this phrase from friends, in passing conversations between strangers, in a podcast, in a movie, and/or see in print. As much as you think you encounter it, as much as you think you see it, children with learning challenges hear and see it more; and for them, there is no such thing as hearing it in passing.

She was sitting under her desk when I entered the classroom. It was my second day on the job as her one-on-one classroom aide back in 2006. This was a 6th grade class, and way more unruly with way more freedom of movement in the classroom than I remember 6th grade was for me a decade and a half prior. I knew nothing of emotional and behavioral disorders in elementary school children and surprisingly it was not a requirement for the job. After adjusting my bearings I realized it was a math class; classroom assistants are the lowest on the totem pole and in this particular school system they shove you in a class and kinda make up your schedule as you go along. There’s actually a particular reason why it’s done that way, but I will save my insight for how corners are cut on your child’s education, especially if they are special education and African American, for a later date.

The students were putting away books and materials getting ready to line up for lunch. She remained under her desk. She was a 6th grade black girl in really bright colors, making a lot of strange noises from under the desk, while making no eye contact with her classmates nor myself. As nearly all of the class made its way into two single-file lines (one line for boys, the other for girls), I made hand gestures to the teacher like “What are we supposed to do now Sway?” The teacher shrugged, called the student by name and asked if she would be attending lunch with the class to which the student remained in her own under-the-desk-world; both physically and mentally. The teacher instructed me to remain behind with her and once she dropped the rest of the class off in the lunchroom she would come back to help me. As the students exited I barely heard one student say, “Who doesn’t like going to lunch and recess?” Another student, barely heard as well, responded “Yea, that’s pretty retarded.” 

Those students most likely did not want to be heard but I heard them and momentarily I was not sure if the girl under the desk heard them. For some reason, which I will never be able to convincingly explain, the brightness of the colors in her clothing seemed to dim and I was sure that she indeed heard them. The strange noises she made ceased and were replaced by mumbled words which I did understand. Some of those words were expletives about where her classmates could go and what they could once they could do to themselves once they get there (use your imagination), but there was an infinite repetition of muffled, sniffling-interjected of the phrase “I’m not retarded!”

A bit of background. At the time I took this full-time job, I really viewed it as a pastime and means to fund equipment for my home studio set-up during my aspiring rapper days. “Retarded” was a word used quite often in the sessions. “Yo, I’m bout to go retarded on this beat”; “That chord progression is slick, this beat goes retarded fam”; “I don’t have the hook yet, but the bars are retarded”. That word had no real power in my vocabulary until I sat on a classroom floor with a twelve year old student that was devastated by a word that I honestly do not think the other student meant for her to hear. The story really ends with me sitting on the floor near the girl, truthfully froze up, awaiting the return of the teacher who actually had an understanding of therapeutic de-escalation techniques; at the time I did not.

It was the first time I saw a child impacted by that word, but uncountably far from the last time. I’ve seen students emotionally defend themselves against being called retarded, I have seen students internalize that word by referring to themselves as retarded, I have had students ask me if I too thought that they were retarded. Over a period of time (especially once I stuck a fork in the rapper dream) I developed an intolerance for that word and most of my close friends are aware that the word elicits anything from a passive-aggressive to strong response from me.   

On the humble brag, I haven’t used that word to describe anything in the past 12 years. I strongly encourage everyone to remove the word from their vocabulary because it affects people and deeply impacts children.


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