What I Realized After a Classmate Called My Daughter the R-Word

My children and I negotiated our way through the crowded mall. I’m accustomed to the patronizing stares and ignore them.

My 17-year-old daughter, Sarah, who has cerebral palsy, walked with forearm crutches. Her service dog, Latte, paced beside her. In most cases, I followed behind with my 4-year-old son, Matthew, with his hand in mine. 

An attractive young man approached Sarah. “I knew you from school,” he said.

Sarah’s broad smile and sparkling eyes indicated her pleasure. “You’re Jonathan, right?” she asked. She rocked on her crutches and beamed at the boy.

He nodded. I noticed his friends snickering near the frozen yogurt stand. Matthew fidgeted in my grasp, but we tried to remain unobtrusive.

“Yeah, I’m Jonathan. You’re a retard, right?”

Ice rushed through me. I froze.

Sarah corrected him. “No, I’m Sarah.” Her freckles danced above her dazzling smile.

“No, I’m sure I’m right,” he maintained.

“You’re wrong, Jonathan,” my daughter said, giggling. “I’m Sarah.”

I interceded. “Please sit down, darling. Your brother would like to show you his toy.”

Before Jonathan could walk away, I grabbed his arm above the elbow. My grasp was firm.

“Hey,” he protested, but stopped when he saw my beet-red face. His friends scattered into the crowd.

Sarah moved with a lurch. Starting is the hardest for her. She stopped, though, when she heard his cry. She noticed my flush.

“Momma, are you OK?”

“I’m fine, sweetie. Sit down, please.”

She lingered, uncertain what to do.

“Please sit down, Sarah.”

I never lost eye contact with Jonathan.

She shuffled a few steps away. I leaned in and whispered to the young man, “That was not a nice thing to do. That was not a nice thing to say. You should be ashamed of yourself, and your mother would be ashamed of you, too.”

My littlest son tugged at my arm. I released my hold on Jonathan’s arm and glanced at the boy. Jonathan all but tripped over himself to follow his friends. His face bore traces of shame.

My heart resumed within me. It seemed as though my whole body held its breath. I hid my shaking reaction and flaming cheeks by scanning the crowds.

Sarah had mentioned Jonathan. He dated a pretty girl and told jokes in school that made everyone laugh. After meeting him, I wondered at whose expense he claimed those chuckles. However, Sarah only saw goodness in all of her classmates. She said nice things about her peers.

Once certain I had the tears in check, I turned to my two children.

“Would you like some frozen yogurt?”

“Yes,” they both responded with enthusiasm. I helped them prepare their frozen sundaes and they ate. Passers-by stole covert glances or openly stared at the little girl with the crutches, leg braces and service dog. One teenage girl commented, “I wish I could bring my dog to the mall.” She shot a mean glance at my daughter, but Sarah found the sprinkles in her sundae much more interesting than the idle conversation of a stranger. I locked eyes with the girl and shook my head. My stomach churned.

Sure, Sarah brought her dog with her. Latte spent years of screening and training before meeting the requirements of a service dog. Sarah and I spent weeks away from home to learn how to be a part of a service team. Latte lent Sarah presence and independence. People who otherwise ignore or feel uncomfortable around her were attracted to the friendly lab mix in the bright blue Canine Companions vest.

The teen twirled her hair, snapped her gum and said, “Whatever. Maybe I’ll bring my dog next time.”

The girl’s ignorance struck the wrong cord because of our encounter with Jonathan. I wondered why the belligerent girl felt she needed her dog’s assistance. I took a deep, steadying breath and looked away. Neither of these young people took the time to know my girl and the challenges she faced daily. They didn’t take the time to know her as a good and gentle person, a young lady who shared all she owned, who helped in every way she could. Sarah loved music, Disney and teen magazines. She’s an avid reader and worried about and prayed for her classmates and family.

Despite her love for life and appreciation for her fellow man, all Jonathan and the young woman saw in my girl was an easy target in her simple trust.

Sarah leaned over the table and said to her brother. “Did you meet Jonathan? He was a boy from my school.”

I realized the world would be a better place if everyone maintained Sarah’s unfailing belief of the good in her fellow man.

Kerry E.B. Black the-mighty-07102015-002

Spread the Word to End the Word! You can head here to pledge to stop using the R-word. It’s a step toward creating more accepting attitudes and communities for all people.

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