The pretty little girl on the playground looks back at me, “Why isn’t she talking?” She asks glancing back at Esmé–who is scooting around in her gait trainer, trailed by several other curious children.
“Esmé doesn’t talk yet, but she understands you.” I say smiling back at her.
“Oh,” She says, fully turning away from my daughter, toward me. “Did you know there are two kinds of stupid? There’s one that’s, like, mental illness, and another that’s, like, not a nice thing to say.” I quickly look over at Esmé, assessing that she, and the children who surround her, are far enough away to be out of earshot.
I was sort of aghast at the connection this little girl–who I am certain is sweet and well-intentioned–just drew between speech and intelligence, and what it implies about my daughter. I didn’t know this child or her parents. Of course, if I did, I might have engaged in a thoughtful and kind discussion. But I don’t, so I didn’t.
Instead, honestly? I pretended I didn’t hear her.
But I did hear her. I can still hear her precocious little voice in the back of my head four weeks later. I am still not certain that this was the right move, to ignore her. But I am also still not sure what the right answer might have been…and, I suppose, this is why it has taken me so very long to write about it. I haven’t even talked the experience through with all the people I normally talk such things through with. I believe I’ve only mentioned it to one person. In fact, it is one of the only such incidences that I’ve not obsessively discussed…instead I have ignored it as much as possible, and when it is no longer possible to ignore, I have quietly turned it around in my head.
But the longer I have sat with it, the more I am troubled by it.
Part of it, I am certain, is that it would be easier to believe it didn’t happen–because it happened with one of Esmé’s peers. It isn’t pleasant when adults say and do the sorts of things that they do–but I feel, at least, that I have a handle on it. I can call them out. I can walk away. I can write about the experience later. In other words I can claim it, with language, with independence, with authority.
When it comes to Esmé’s peers, however, I have rarely worried that one of them would say something hurtful to her. Children ask the most amazingly honest and unself-conscious questions about Esmé–and, in my experience, they come from a place of kindness and curiosity. And, so, I’ve never really worried about what Esmé might overhear when she is among her peers. This little girl’s words started me thinking about the reality that Esmé’s peers may be entering an age group where difference is starting to be parsed in new ways–where people start to have labels assigned, where those labels have hierarchy…and, thus the seeds of teasing are sewn.
It terrifies me to think of Esmé hearing and understanding things said about her by her peers. It makes me want to wrap her up in a protective bubble for ever and ever. She is such a confident child. A child who has been told by everyone around her that she can do things. That she is clever, and beautiful, and funny. I abhor thinking that her confidence could be shaken by her peers. And it isn’t a big step from “Did you know there are two kinds of stupid?” to “I don’t want to play with her, she’s stupid!”
I do understand that all children are knocked down a peg or two by exposure to peers. That teasing (in a certain amount) is a natural thing. I was teased quite a bit in grade school…it was difficult, but I also credit it with building into me a certain strength. I credit it with making me embrace being weird, with providing me with a rich fantasy world in which I dressed down bullies–the seeds of my love for language. But, I could defend myself: verbally, intellectually, and, when it came to it, physically. I wasn’t fundamentally so different that my value as a person, my very existence, wasn’t regularly questioned, the way that Esmé’s is (and it is, regularly, in the subtext behind questions like, “Did you know before she was born?” but this is a topic for another day). I wasn’t part of a population that faces serious discrimination and extraordinarily high rates of abuse. I wasn’t part of a population whose access to basic rights–like, a free and safe education, essential services, well-trained caregivers, and so on–are regularly threatened by legislators cutting budgets, by school districts trying to save money…
Because the assumptions about my daughter that this little girl made by connecting non-verbal with “stupid” are the seeds of the adult apathy, insensitivity, intolerance, and ignorance that we deal with somewhat regularly in our day to day life…they sprout from the assumptions made about a non-verbal person’s intelligence, from the idea that intelligence and ability might make one life more valuable than the next.
In the end, what I suppose still bothers me the most about that exchange with the little girl is that I don’t have the answers for how I should have or could have addressed the situation. At the time I didn’t want to draw more attention to the problem. And I am ok with my decision to just not address it in the moment. But I am not ok with the idea that the problem go unaddressed on a grander scale. By which I mean, I am not ok with assuming that any child is beyond our reach to learn and incorporate thoughtful and compassionate stances toward people with disabilities.
In those words “there are two kinds of stupid” I could see the seeds that sprout into the woman who tries to cut Esmé in line to the accessible toilet. Or to the receptionist who tells me my kid is her biggest fear. I don’t want to see those seeds take hold in Esmé’s peers…in people who will grow up to be future decision makers, future caregivers, future parents of children with disabilities. I don’t know, exactly how to do that. I am not certain of what to do.
What I am sure of is…we need to talk.