Fistfight might be an over statement. It was more shoving, kicking and wrestling. When we each ended up headlocks, someone split us up. Later, to diminish the fact that he got into a fight with a girl, he went around telling everyone I was crazy. He said I jumped him. He wasn’t wrong. I went crazy because he was taunting and shoving a boy with a mental disability.
Lane Tech is a huge school on Chicago’s north side. With over 5,000 students, we had a mix of everything– jocks, nerds, Goths, geeks, outsiders, stoners, preppies rich and poor. There were also students with special needs. I never gave them much thought until I was hanging out with a couple of friends after lunch one day. We had finished early and decided to walk around the building. Near one of the back doors, a boy was smoking and talking to another boy. We stopped near them when we heard the smoker calling the other boy “retarded”. He blew smoke in his face and shoved him trying to get a response. The other boy did nothing. He stood there and did nothing, which seemed to anger the smoker. He shoved him harder.
“Just leave him alone!”
The smoker turned his attention to me. He walked over and came face to face with me. I didn’t move. I don’t know where the courage came from. I only remember not flinching. I remember feeling like whatever happened next was worth it.
He took a drag on his cigarette and blew smoke in my face. I inhaled and blew it back at him. My father smoked three packs of non-filtered Camels my whole life. I’d been sucking second hand fumes in the womb, so fresh air was more confusing for my lungs than smoke.
Now the smoker was pissed. He came close enough to me for our noses to touch like he was a bull. We stared each other in the eyes. I didn’t move, and I don’t know what the hell he was looking for.
“What are you? A retard lover?”
I said nothing. I could hear my heart beating. He pulled his face away and put his hand on my cheek.
“My clothes are worth more than you parents pay for rent.”
He really said that. The thing is, it was true but I didn’t get what point he was trying to make. Why did he care if my I shared a bunk bed with my dad in the dining room of our one bedroom apartment?
He still had his hand on my face. “Retard lover.”
I flipped out.
I did go crazy. He had loaded the word with so much hate and contempt that I couldn’t take it. I shoved him and by the time some one pulled us apart we had drawn a pretty big crowd, but no blood. I had ripped his “more than my rent shirt” which still feels good.
I’ve never liked the word “retarded”. That’s not to say I haven’t used it since that day out of thoughtlessness. I’ve also had to use it in meetings about my son Declan, because his diagnosis is moderate mental retardation. People will use this word to describe him, both medically and out of malice, for the rest of his life. I try not to fight with those who use it out of ignorance.
Today, national Spread the Word to End the Word day, I’m reminded not only of the fight ahead of me for my son, but the one in the Lane parking lot years ago when I went crazy. My fist fighting days are long behind me (I hope) but the fight against hate speech of every kind, word by word, will continue long after this day is done.