When I was a kid I thought half the world was retarded. Indeed, I was half right.
I can’t even start this train of thought without derailing to urge the six of you who are offended at the word “retarded” to please remember that when I was five years old, “retarded” was what retarded people were called. I know we get a new euphemism every seven years or so, but it was okay to say it then, and the retarded people didn’t mind.
My dad was a psychologist who trained Special Ed teachers, so everything he did involved retarded kids. I followed him around a lot, and was often engaged as a guinea pig to help develop new tests and train the teachers who gave them. Weekly I’d find myself in a room full of retarded kids, all of us taking IQ tests. To this day I still love taking tests, a sentiment my friends find despicable.
As a kindergartner I was given exactly two days to learn the eight block path to my school. “Don’t worry,” my parents assured me as they refused to accompany me the third day, “you’ll find it.” I was terrified of getting lost. I had already surmised that because there were four other siblings ahead of me in my family, my disappearance would not be a great inconvenience, and perhaps my absence would only be discovered when my mom noticed that the house was still clean.
I was to walk about six blocks before turned right, onto a random dirt path that passed what I now know was a home for retarded kids. As I walked alongside its big gray stucco wall, I would look in the windows and see several hydrocephalic boys getting ready for school. It was reassuring to see them, because then I knew for sure I was on the right path. To this day I feel safer around anyone with a big head.
I started elementary school at A. O. Thomas, an old brick building on the college campus. The public school system leased a couple of rooms for kindergartners and first graders, and the rest of the building for Special Ed. So it was normal to see the hallways filled with retarded kids, and whenever I looked out the window the playground was filled with the Special Ed kids who, as near as I could tell, had recess all day long.
Because the kids with Downs Syndrome had such similar features I presumed they were all from the same big family. This was not so far-fetched, because my friend Randy Shada came from a family that took up about a third of the city, and held their family reunions at the county fairgrounds.
It wasn’t until fourth grade, after moving to a more traditional school building with a more representative population, that I learned most kids have an intellect advanced enough to exploit my soft spots, steal my lunch money, and to trick Chris The Class Bully into beating me up by telling him things I said which I really didn’t. And by the end of that year I discovered I too had the gift of belittling. I effortlessly mocked my classmate Earl when he tripped over his shoelaces and fell flat on his face while on his way to demonstrate in front of the the whole class that he couldn’t find the United States on a map. I didn’t know that both of his parents were deaf. I wasn’t smart enough to see that Earl, too, was struggling to find his path.
Every day in first grade Edwin, who had Downs Syndrome, gave me a bear hug like I was a cocker spaniel and told me he loved me. And every time we sat together on the merry-go-round, Randy, who was hydrocephalic and had a head shaped like a lightbulb, offered me half his lunch. It took a few years for me to realize that kids like these weren’t common at all.