Tuesday, August 21, 2007


When I was little I was retarded. I don’t mean the way people say “Oh that was SO retarded, I can’t believe he did that.” Not that kind of retarded. I mean actually mentally retarded.

I became retarded when I was four and went to kindergarten. Before that I’d been called shy and a little slow, excessively scattered and dreamy, but the people who knew me figured I was just crazy like the rest of the family and I’d grow up, get pregnant at seventeen and go through three or four husbands while working at the fried chicken stand, just like they all did. The expectations weren’t high, so at three, when I learned to count to ten in the Spanish my grandmother remembered from high school, they decided I was a genius, which meant that instead of working at the fried chicken stand, maybe I could learn to type and work in office somewhere. You can imagine their surprise when it turned out I was retarded.

“She ain’t retarded.” said half of the family and two of my grandmother’s friends from the Home Decorating Club.

“I knew somethin’ weren’t right with that young’un.” Said the other half, shaking their heads.

But still, retarded? Three separate school teachers reassured my grandmother that I was indeed retarded. The test scores proved it and they had tested me themselves.

“This child’ll never live on her own. You’re gonna hafta figure somethin’ out for her when you’re gone.” They told Mommom Jewel. “She’ll never be able to hold any kind of a job. We’re sorry to tell you but she is mentally retarded.”

How could this possibly be? How could Jewel Holland’s granddaughter be a retard? She didn’t look like a retard. The child spoke well; better in fact that most of the adults in Millpond. She taught her own damn self to read at three years old because she said she wanted to write stories, so you tell me, how in the hell could a retarded child do that?

On my mother’s side we have some retarded cousins, but they’re distant. My great grandmother Aurelia, who liked to be called Ethel, and no, I still don’t know why, had a brother named Leonard who married a woman who was also named Ethel, which made Mama Ethel furious because she wanted to be the only person with that name and she didn’t want to ever be confused with her brother’s slattern wife. Leonard and his wife Ethel lived out in the middle of the swamp where they did nothing but drink corn liquor day and night and hunt bullfrogs, which they then skinned and ate. Every six months or so Leonard and Ethel would come into town and everyone would have to avert their eyes and pretend they didn’t know them because they were so utterly disgusting and vile in every possible way that no one wanted any association with such filth of the earth. Leonard and Ethel had four retarded sons, and if it hadn’t been for the four retarded sons they probably would never have left their swamp shack to sully the fair streets of Millpond, but about twice a year Leonard and Ethel would feel guilty and would cash one of the checks the state sent for the four retarded sons and instead of spending it on more liquor for themselves, they’d actually come into town to get their sons some ice cream at the Woolworth’s soda fountain. You never saw a place clear out so fast as when those six came through the front door. No one wanted to serve them or sit next to them. The retarded sons were loud, uncontrollable and occasionally violent. They drooled and peed their pants, but then again, so did Leonard and Ethel because they were so drunk. It was terrible.

Because of Leonard and Ethel and their four retarded sons, Mommom Jewel blamed my retardation on my mother’s obviously inferior gene pool, but still, she wasn’t convinced. Then again, those teachers were awfully convinced and they had the test scores to prove it.

“Plus, she has no motor skills at all. She can’t tie her shoes and she can not skip! Who ever saw a child who couldn’t skip?” said one teacher.

“Yes, it’s true. We tested her for three solid days. Did you know that she can’t catch a ball? We tried and tried and all she did was sit there and cover her head and cry.”added Teacher Two.

“I tested her knowledge of opposites and asked her the opposite of black and that child told me it was blue.”said the first teacher.

“She keeps trying to tell us that she can read, and everyone knows that four year olds can’t read. She picked up a book and tried to act like she was reading.”said the third teacher.

Mommom Jewel argued that it was true. I could read. But the teachers told her I had just memorized books and retarded children memorized things all the time without understanding what they meant. It was very common.

They put me in The Resource Room and although I was four years old, I knew this was not a good place to be and that I did not belong there. Back then in the days before elaborate government Special Ed programs that are all full of pleasant sounding euphemisms and acronyms, all of the children who weren’t perfectly normal were deemed retards and thrown into The Resource Room, which all the kids in school of course called The Retard Room. I did not want to be in the Resource Room. It was not very resourceful and it smelled like spit and diapers.

The Resource Room, with its institutional mint green walls, was little more than a containment area until the children who were forced into it grew old enough to go to jail or mental hospitals. There were two teachers, nurses really, who babysat all the various forms of retarded kids, because, although they called them all the same thing, they were all different. Some children were autistic, too many I suspect had Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and one girl had Spinal Bifida. The funny thing was the Spinal Bifida girl wasn’t even retarded. She was really smart! The disease affected her body not her mind.

My first day in the Resource Room, labeled a retard because I couldn’t skip, a Downs Syndrome girl named Vicky latched on to me and wouldn’t leave me alone. I couldn’t understand her when she talked and she pulled my hair. I cried all day, but this was more proof that I was mentally incompetent.

My grandmother let me rot in The Resource Room for a week. I refused to eat and I cried constantly, begging her not to make me go to school where we learned nothing and instead sat on the floor all day. After the end of one week she intervened and for this I am eternally grateful.

Mommom Jewel put on her orange, faux leather jacket with it’s matching faux leather sash and marched down to that school to give every god damned person in there a piece of her mind. Her grand daughter was not a retard and by God if they called that child one, one more time they were gonna have hell to pay. Truly, at this point in the story I just wish I could record how my grandmother tells this story so you could hear her version of it. It involves lots of invocations of the Holy Trinity, as well as some pointing and yelling. By the time Jewel Holland was through with those teachers they were scared to death and promised to place my non-skipping little behind right back in the normal Kindergarten class.

“I will teach her to tie her shoes and I will teach her to skip and catch a ball. You concentrate on educating her.” Mommom Jewel told them.

By the time she got home I had taught myself to count to ten in Japanese.

I was not retarded. I was a child who was too smart for the people around her to recognize and I was different, because even back then I did what I wanted when I wanted. When they tested me, I simply did not feel like proving anything to a bunch of strangers. I was insulted and confused that they wanted to trot me around like a pony and throw balls at me like I was a performing seal, so I just refused to cooperate. Because of my noncompliance, I was a child left behind.

Imagine if I had not had a grandmother who was willing to whoop ass on behalf of the defenseless. What would my life have been like had I stayed trapped in the Resource Room without anyone to recognize the fact that I was not retarded? Maybe eventually I would have become retarded. I honestly shudder to think what my life could be like if that label had stuck.

This wasn’t the only time that school teachers failed me. It was the beginning of a pattern.


Jen said...

After reading only the first 2 paragraphs, I absolutely must tell you how I sincerely hope your book is actually an autobiography. (You could sell it as fiction, no one but your friends and family would know it was actually your life.)

Beautiful! Your writing is so moving. (And as entertained as I was by the Subservient blog, I'm so much more in love with this blog, with your writing and so much more moved by it, now.)

Ok. Now I've said that, I'll go back and continue reading your post.

Architect Critic said...

Very fascinating story. I can't imagine how many other kids were stuck with the label "slow" or "retarded" just because the teachers didn't understand what was going on. How often does that still happen today? Now they have a label for everything.

When I was in first grade or so I was put in "special education" classes because I constantly mis-pronounced certain letter sounds. After a few weeks of speech therapy, they finally figured out that it was just because I was missing my front teeth.

St Yves said...

so.effing.funny. and insightful. Your stories always remind me of something that happened to me!

Miss Kitty said...

This is just like my school in Booger County, Georgia. My sister & I were "different" because we could read at age 2 and count almost to 100. Most kids in Booger County don't even have two brain cells to rub together, so the teachers like and are used to stupid.


sounds real familiar. i spent weeks being "tested" and only to find out i didn't want to do the same crap that other kids were doing. i was smarter, alot smarter. so they stuck me back into school and when given teachers who understood i aced classes. when given teachers who wanted me to fit into their "profiles" i usualy spent alot of time in detention. great post!

NicoleinAZ said...

My mother was told I was "bossy" by my Kindergarten teacher. When I reached the 5th and 6th grades it turned into "Good Leadership Ability" and "Gumption".

(I'm bossy still) :-)

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the book "Expecting Adam" (really good, by the way, check it out if you have the chance). Adam, who has Down Syndrome, started flunking his IQ tests because he figured out that as soon as he tested out, they gave him a Dr. Pepper and sent him out to the playground to wait while the adults discussed. So he got answers wrong on purpose so he could get his soda faster! Even the retarded kids are smarter than you'd think ;)

Nana said...

Years ago, Shirley Jackson wrote of one of her children...who tested "brilliant" at one [private] school and "retarded" at another. He had enjoyed what he was asked to do at the first school ... and didn't at the second. Wonder how many others get "labeled" that way...

SJ said...

Ok once again I see parallels in our lives! In kindergarden they decided I was retarded. They said I didn't sit normally in the chair and I didn't have great social skills. Obviously a child that doesn't always do exactly what's she's told and doesn't like all the other children must be retarded. I didn't find out about this until I was much older and my mom told me about marching down with all my straight "A" grades on my report card and explained to them exactly what retarded was....she used them as an example. Thank god for the southern mama's and grandma's in the world lest we all be forever trapped in mint green rooms.

Pumpkin said...

Hells Bells hun! It's mind boggling how some people can manage to be so closed minded about certain things!!!

I mean, deciding that you were 'retarded' because you didn't catch a ball and didn't skip????!?!?!?!?!?!?!
Good Grief!!!!!

Your gran sounds like one damn fine woman, and I know that if my child ever comes across anything like you did (he hasn't started learning Japanese yet, though lol) I will recall this story and 'channel' your grans forcefulness to kick ass, verbally ofcourse!

Again, brilliant story, I swear I was talking to the computer as I was reading, words to the effect of

"Oh, no they did not put that wee girl in a remedial room when she was 3...that's shocking!!!"

Husband wondered who I was talking to when he walked through the door!!!

And thanks for the 'Prada shoes' story, that guys sounds an idiot (I haven't read the back story to that yet)and your parents....well, they just rock!!!


Dr Fungus said...

I can definitely empathise. When I was about 9, the school put me in "remedial maths" lessons. There was nothing wrong with my mathematical skills; there was something wrong with the teaching methodologies. Now I have a PhD. Take that Crummy Senior Primary School!

gulfsidebo said...

My kindergarten teachers thought there was something seriously physically wrong with me because I used to fall asleep in class all the time. My mother finally had enough brains to ask what time I fell asleep and they said it was the same time every day...like clockwork. She asked what activity we were doing and they said "reading". It turned out that I was bored so I'd fall asleep. My mother informed them that I had been reading since age 3 as well. They moved me in with the first graders during reading time and I didn't fall asleep after that.

My oldest daughter just started kindergarten yesterday. She's actually in a K/1 class. I think, hopefully, that schools have learned from past mistakes, but I am not quite certain.

I know my daughter isn't retarded because she consistently reminds me that I am, in her words, "dumber than a bag of hammers".

I'm glad you weren't retarded. I wouldn't have had anyone to share the real teen angst with.

laurent said...

Your writing is delightful! Full of details with a twist toward sarcasm.
I love it.

Morrigoon said...

My kindergarten teachers thought I was retarded too... they called my parents to tell me I wasn't able to keep up, accusing them of not helping me advance academically, and finally saying I might have a learning disability, and my parents said, "Gee, we thought she was doing great for a three-year old."


(I'd been mistakenly put into a class of 5 year olds and was keeping up darn well for someone only 60% their age thank you very much!)

Frank Gibson said...

Terrific! I have been Stumbling around Blogspot all morning, and your site is the first one I have found engaging. Excellent writing.

lorraina said...

just found this entry and wanted to add the story of my 1st grade experience of when i made a night time picture and i colored the stars blue, instead of yellow. It started off all the dramatics, which i now realize was looking for other proof of my retardedness.
I had always thought that they just thought i was merely color-blind, but now that i've read this i see it as maybe they were looking for something else. I'm so glad i survived the mint green room and so glad you're not retarded either!

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