Posted by: Hallie Levine | September 7, 2011

F-cking retard

Saturday afternoon I left Jamie with the kids for an hour and went swimming at our local pool.

I have a stress fracture (two, actually) in my left foot, so I can’t run while it heals. I’d been feeling restless and edgy for days, cooped up with the kids in the aftermath of the hurricane, so I figured swimming some laps would burn off some excess energy. We’re at the pool every afternoon during the summer, but usually I don’t get beyond the toddler area.

It felt strange walking in by myself, without any screaming children. As I walked towards the competition pool I saw a bunch of teenage male lifeguards by the snack bar, snickering. I didn’t pay much attention to them—I was thinking how relieved I was to have some peace and quiet and looking forward to some peaceful moments swimming silently in the water.

Then their voices reached me.

“That kid’s a retard,” one of them was saying loudly. “A total fucking retard.” The boy looked about 16; he had white blonde hair about the same shade as Geoffrey’s and ears that stuck out like Dumbo’s from his face. He thrust his hands and tongue out, rocking back and forth with a Frankenstein like gait. “I can’t stand him. I mean, how fucking retarded can you be?”

Then he saw me.

It took a moment for it to register, that the blonde woman standing glaring at him was the same woman who spent almost every weekday afternoon at the toddler pool with her daughter. All the lifeguards know who Johanna is, especially after she had a particularly explosive diaper in the pool last month. And while they may not be the brightest bunch, they are clued in enough to realize she has Down Syndrome.

The boy’s eyes widened and his mouth opened and closed again and again, like a crazed dying guppy. I watched as he slowly lifted his right hand, waving it back and forth at me in a pathetic attempt to say hi.

“Oh shit,” I heard another of the lifeguards say.

A few moms were sitting with their kids at the picnic tables, watching us closely. I realized suddenly that they all recognized me, and knew that my daughter had Down Syndrome, and somehow I knew, with a sick feeling in my stomach, that they all wanted to see how this scene would play out. I really, really didn’t want to do this. I knew whatever I said to that group of boys would be conversation fodder for whatever Labor Day barbecue those ladies were going to later that night.

Part of me—a really big part—just wanted to keep walking over to the competition pool and swim my laps like nothing had happened. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did that. I sighed and walked over to the lifeguards. “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that as the mother of a child with a disability, I find your use of the word retard horrifying and offensive,” I said to the boy. He had some weird red blotches on his face—I wasn’t sure if it was eczema or teenage acne—and, ironically, a chain with a cross around his neck. He blushed, making his spots appear even redder, and as I stared at him, watching the flush spread from his cheeks to his neck and Dumbo-esque ears, I thought contemptuously, what a dork.

“No ma’am,” he said. “You don’t.”

“For the record, I don’t find the word retarded itself problematic—taken literally, it means to go more slowly,” I said. I tried to keep my voice calm and level, even though I really wanted to slap him across the face. “But it’s people like you, who use the word in a derogatory manner that I find offensive.” I turned around and walked away.

As I stepped down the stairs, I felt someone grab my hand. “I’m so sorry,” one of the mothers said to me loudly. “You must feel so terrible.” She was wearing a white tankini sprinkled with pink flowers. “I can’t believe they’re just standing there talking, anyway. Aren’t they supposed to be watching our children?”

“Thanks,” I said. She probably was trying to be supportive; I just couldn’t deal with it at the moment.

I got into the pool and fiercely began swimming laps. I knew the pool was 25 meters, so I began mentally calculating how many laps would equal a mile. Anything not to think about what had just happened. I had swum 34 laps, roughly half a mile, when I heard bells ringing. I stopped swimming and looked up.

“Thunder!” the lifeguards were shouting. “Thunder!”

The pools were closed.

I hoisted myself out of the pool and threw off my goggles, wiping the water out of my eyes. I realized I’d forgotten my towel at home. I put on my flip flops and walked, dripping, to the main entrance.

When I passed by the stairs, the boy stepped out in front of me. “I just want you to know,” he said, “I’m really, really sorry, and I won’t ever use that word again.”

My head was pounding. I wasn’t sure if it was from the chlorine, or the impending storm, or simply from having to deal with a situation I didn’t want to be in.

“I think your daughter is adorable,” he added. His eyes were blinking rapidly and with his long pale eyelashes he looked for a moment like a large terrified rabbit. “I wasn’t thinking of her when I said it. Honestly.”

“I’m sure you weren’t,” I said. “But think about her every time you’re tempted to say the word retard.”

“I will,” he said solemnly. “I would never, ever want to hurt her feelings.” I wondered if he was sincere or if he was worried I’d complain about him and quash his chances of scoring the same cushy job next year.

I guess I have too much other stuff going on in my life to worry about what’s going through some pimply adolescent’s brain. But as I walked to my car, I kept thinking about that word, and how scornful and ugly the boy’s mouth had looked as he said it.

I don’t want to think about a decade from now, when someone will say it spitefully in front of my daughter and I will watch her face crumble as she grasps the implications of the word.

I’m just glad that she wasn’t with me at that moment, and that she’s still too young to understand.



  1. When I was done reading this I exhaled and realized how tense my body was while I was reading. I will remember your words next time I hear that word and stifle the urge to smack the crap out of the person using it. 🙂 Crazy how a word can take your breath away and make your blood boil at the same time.

  2. I’m quite sure that boy was sincere and will never use that word again. He’ll think of your conversAtion every time that word is on the tip of his tongue

  3. I’m so sorry that you had to deal with such a terrible situation. I’m sorry you had to even hear that damned word. I’m also so very happy that my JoJo has a mother as wonderful as you are! Let’s all work very hard to correct those who persist in using that horrible word so that my JoJo will never have to hear it herself..

    • First: This was NOT a “terrible situation” that she “had to deal with”. She chose to step into someone else’s private conversation, which had absolutely nothing to do with her, and demand that the people having the conversation change their vocabulary to suit what she felt was appropriate at that moment. The people having the conversation where NOT speaking to her or even speaking about her retarded daughter so their conversation was NONE of her business. If some nosy b*&$h had interrupted HER conversation 3 years ago (prior to having her daughter) and said “don’t use the word retard”, she would’ve have went off on them and told them to mind their own damned business but now everyone is supposed to bow down to her because NOW she is offended?! And if you need examples of REAL “terrible situations” let’s try: Losing your job and health insurance with children, a mortgage, car payments, and elderly parents depending upon you. Let’s try hearing a knock on the door and opening it to a police officer stating that your loved ones have been killed in a car accident Let’s try waking up in the middle of the night to your house burning down around you. Do you need more or are you beginning to realize that you’re playing the overly-dramatic card in order to get attention which is downright pathetic for an adult to do.

      Second: “I’m sorry you had to even hear that damned word.” Rrriiiggghhhttt……because all those years she (and her husband) USED that “damned word” to insult someone for doing something as hideous as not checking out her groceries fast enough mean that she is now beyond reproach. Or how about when she pissed her pants laughing at the pathetic movie Borat where the star makes fun of a retarded sibling. Or how about when this vile woman ridicules a TEENAGER for his ears (Dumbo), his intelligence (not the brightest bunch), his skin (red blotches, eczema, acne), then called him a dork (I can think of better words to describe her), but you support HER behaviour (even though she’s acting like a snotty 2 year old).

      Third: She “really wanted to slap him across his face”…..So she brags about wanting to become physically violent to a TEENAGER over a WORD that she used up until a few years ago but now find vulgar. This say quite a bit more about HER intelligence, compassion, morals and values, along with YOURS, rather than this teenager’s.

      Fourth: “But it’s people like you, who use the word in a derogatory manner that I find offensive.” …..Hhhhmmm….Unless of course, it’s HER who uses/used the word retard – or any other insult that applies to a disability that doesn’t directly affect her like moron, imbecile, crazy, insane, etc. – then it’s just fine because SHE was/is free to use any language she wishes and insult anyone, anytime.

      Fifth: “I guess I have too much other stuff going on in my life to worry about what’s going through some pimply adolescent’s brain.” Ummm…apparently not, since she rushed home to write about it in a pathetic attempt to garner attention for being a bully to a teenager.

      You and hallie are asking people to accept johanna exactly as she is, that everyone is just as valuable regardless of who/what they are, yet here you both are insulting and berating anyone who dares to use a word you find offensive and even those who are decent enough to apologize to you when they did nothing wrong.

  4. I’m proud of you for sticking up for our kids, and I think that kid will think twice the next time. More than that, I’d like to hope that maybe, when he hears others use that word, he’ll picture adorable Jo Jo, and realize just how hurtful it really is. You educated someone today!

  5. So proud of you for speaking up, even though it was really not what you wanted to deal with in that moment.

  6. Have you ever read or heard something and just felt like cheering, felt like you were so in aw of that hero that you wanted to be them. I just had all those feelings times a hundred when i just read this. Good for you! Im cheering from the sidelines, front lines, and everywhere else!

  7. Excellent way of handling it. Johanna will never have to worry about your support. It’s obvious in everything you say. Good for you!

  8. Johanna is perfect and beautiful, and I am so glad you stood up to them. I pray it made a difference. There is just so much ugly in the world. I fear the day when someone will say it in front of my own child. 😦 Heaven help them. I pray God has his arm around my shoulder that day, and his hand over my mouth, so that I speak with grace, and wisdom like you did.

  9. Im so frightened of the day when this word will be used in front of my son, my husband already said he’s going to “loose” it. Thats why I think spreading awareness is so important, guess I have hope that the more I spread awareness, the less likely it will be that my son ever has to have that word said to his face.

  10. What a phenomenal lady, I mean LADY, you are… strength in grace and gentle in your handling of a truly awful situation. How blessed Johanna is to have you for a mama…

    I also agree with Michal R, though you may not yet be ready to hear it. Your gracious firmness and resolution got through to that young man and probably changed his life forEVER! Remember, teenage boys don’t EVER admit they were wrong and certainly not when there were other boys around.

    Well done, Mama Bear.

  11. I’m so sorry you had to deal with this situation. I had a similar experience outside of a church a couple of years ago. I was parked in the lot waiting for my daughter to come out of a class. With me were my two children with Down syndrome, in the back seat. A small group of teens walked past and one called the other a retard and they were laughing. He looked up and saw me sitting there. He was immediately embarrassed. He paused by my window and looked at me. I said very softly, “Please don’t use that word; it’s very hurtful.” And then I pointed to my beautiful children in the back seat. He flushed, and told me he was so sorry. His friends were silent. I felt like this young man was truly sorry and would not use that word again. At least I hope not.

    Robin Sattel Zaborek
    Denver, Colorado

  12. Ironically, I have never heard the word directed at my daughter. I only hear it used in this manner, and my daughter is 12. Kudos to you for staying calm. I think you handled the situation wonderfully and if you story is accurate – I doubt this boy will ever forget the lesson he learned.

  13. My son with Down syndrome is 15. A few years ago I had to have a conversation with him regarding the r-word. It was one of the hardest I’ve ever had. I don’t think he knew he had an intellectual disability although he knew he had Down syndrome. It went surprisingly well. He said he’d heard it a few times but just ignored it and walked away. I’m glad he has a good sense of self-worth. He thought about it and said, “Martin Luther King wouldn’t like that.” He got that this is about discrimination and civil rights. How’s that for a kid with an intellectual disability?!

    When he was little, he was adorable and nobody would want to hurt him. But little kids get big, become adolescents with pimples and weird voices. Very few remain cute through it all. Why is it that people who wouldn’t hurt a cute little kid have no problem with being hurtful toward someone older and less cute?

  14. Great question, Sarah. It makes me so sad. We just have to keep educating people.

  15. Beautiful post and I am so glad you said something that day- and I know it takes effort. As a son of a almost 15 year old boy who is sometimes full of angst and vinager (on a bad day) I can tell you that they are listening- deep down inside their macho swaggering carcasses there is a sweet little boy soul that wants to be loved and accepted and is scared shitless. They are desparate to belong. They need strong leadership (as you demo-ed). Without a community to remind them what is good and what is not they are lost at sea.

  16. why are people kissing your butt for chewing out a teenager?!?! you say you and your husband both LOVED retard and used it as supposedly educated adults but then you turn around and make fun of a TEENAGER for something he can’t help like his ears and acne. he wasn’t talking to you or your kid but you jump into his conversation and treat him like dirt for doing something YOU did. why do you think you’re so much better than a TEENAGER who stepped up and apologized when he shouldn’t have and you can’t even publicly apologize to HIM for making fun of him on an international site?! oh ya you got your morals straight there don’t ya. you’re still the same person who used retard to make fun of people you felt where beneath you but now you just use other words to insult. you’re lucky it wasn’t my son you talked to like that and you owe that young man an apology cause he is more of an upstanding human being than you are.

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