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.