In the seventh grade, I had a friend named Janine* who uttered the word “retarded” approximately every thirty seconds while she was awake. Kids at that age are terrible people — at least I was terrible and everyone I knew was terrible — and so Janine was really no worse than the rest of us, even if her odd verbal tic was particularly annoying. In Janine’s world, everything was retarded. Everything. Her shoes were retarded. Our math homework was retarded. This tater tot was retarded. The tree that dripped shit-colored liquid from seed pods after a torrential Florida downpour on a spring afternoon… was likewise retarded.
Lots of kids hook onto certain words as go-to expressions. Even as an adult, whenever I am nervous or distracted, I am known to nod repetitively and murmur “excellent” quietly to myself, over and over again, as if possessed by Professor Moriarty, or Mr. Burns. I don’t know why Janine loved “retarded” so much; likely there was no reason. Eventually she invented a shortened version — “ree-ree” — spoken in a nasal whine high in the back of the throat, as if issued from a crueler incarnation of Pee-Wee Herman. Only those of us who knew Janine knew that “ree-ree” was short for “retarded”, and she used both words interchangeably, all of the time.
It was via my annoyance with Janine that I grew to despise “retarded” myself. At that age, we had some vague concept that the word was used as a slur to describe certain people with certain disabilities, but it never really registered that our use of the word could have anything to do with those kids having a rough time. From first grade through seventh, I was compelled to take special speech classes once a week. (I had big problems with R, S, and SH sounds. Still do.) For a couple of years, one of my speech-class compatriots was a kid named Chris, who had some unknown-to-me cognitive disability, of which his speech issues were but a small part. When first we began the classes together, he was a nice kid, kind, extremely physically affectionate (uncomfortably so for me, who did not like to be touched), eager to like people and to be liked in return. He had none of our studied proto-adolescent guile; he didn’t know how to operate within the circles that the neurotypical kids traveled. In earlier grades this did not bother him, but as we all crept toward our teens his kindness faded and his explosive hugs turned to violent outbursts.
We wouldn’t necessarily have labeled him as “retarded” — we had the tacit understanding that using the word as casual slang was different from calling it as a name to someone for whom the word might do a real injury — but we would have regarded him as broken, and frightening in his unpredictability. As a child (and, to a slightly lesser degree, as an adult) who responded with extreme anxiety to sudden loud noises, I was always terrified of Chris, even in his nicer era, as he was prone to sudden fits of shouting — joyful or otherwise — that sent me into trembles of fear. I cultivated a near-constant anger at him for scaring me, even without meaning to. But I never called him names and I tried to be nice to him at the urging of our speech teacher.
By seventh grade I was watching Chris’ behavior spiral out of control, his fall accompanied by the vivid symphony of teasing from square-jawed mean boys who called him faggot and idiot, and all the while I listened to Janine call everything she saw “retarded”. I never connected the events. Why would I? There was no direct connection. Janine’s obsessive repetition did not cause the boys to tease Chris, though both events stemmed from a social environment in which being like Chris was considered to be a bad thing.
It would be nice if I could say that I stopped using the word “retarded” because I had an epiphany of social conscience, but I didn’t — I was just sick to fucking death of hearing Janine say the word. She sounded unbearably foolish going on about “ree-ree” this and “ree-ree” that, and her total lack of self-awareness on the matter disgusted me to the extent that I had elaborate fantasies of stabbing her in the neck with my pencil where she sat behind me endlessly mumbling, “This is sooooooo retaaaaarded!” in our science class.
Chris changed schools halfway through the seventh grade; I don’t know where he went. He was just gone. Janine kept saying “retarded” and to this day whenever I hear someone use the word I see her face in my head and have to crush the urge to scream at them to shut the fuck up. These days so many of us feel compelled to scrub our vocabularies shiny-clean of all potentially-objectionable terms; with “retarded”, I never had to re-train myself not to say it, never had to guard against slip-ups. I don’t slip because it’s a word I’ve not used since I was twelve. I could tell you that I don’t slip because the word is hateful and cruel, and this is true, but I really don’t slip because I can’t bear the idea of ever sounding like Janine, my aversion born not of an adult social consciousness, but from a preteen loathing of a terrifically annoying peer.
I am better than the terrible person I was in the seventh grade, even if I am not thoroughly a good person, not yet, though I am trying to be one. Does it matter why I don’t say the word, so long as I do not say it? I’m not sure. Mightn’t it be better if I were actively fighting the word in myself, all of the time? Fighting my own use of this word would keep its origins and meanings fresh in my mind; it would keep my thoughts directed at the systematic marginalization of people with cognitive disabilities, instead of recalling Janine, like a parrot, repeating “ree-ree” in her curious throaty cartoonish voice.
Part of me thinks that if I had relied on the word as slang, and then been forced to give it up, that experience would make me a better activist, and a kinder human — regardless of whether I still had moments of forgetfulness and negligence in which “retarded” would periodically slide out of my mouth like a forked tongue betraying my lack of self-mastery, an energetic reminder of all the work left to do, on myself, and on the world. There is value in the trying, maybe greater than in the achievement, and at this stage of my life, I believe that the trying is where we benefit most, even when we fail.
*Names have been changed.