To the little girl who taught me the R-word,

An open letter to the little girl who taught me the R-word,

Hey, it’s me. I know you don’t remember this. Maybe you don’t remember me, but I remember a day overcast in yellow like a jaundiced memory. We were young, maybe six, playing on the playground at recess. You were smiling and carefree. You couldn’t hurt a fly. We were on the merry-go-round, warding off boredom with every spin around the ring, singing songs, and wondering if magic was real. You said, “Lidiah, do you have any sisters?”

I said no.

“So, you have brothers?” Another trip around the circle.

I said yes, one.

“What’s he like?” You asked.

I had a prepared answer for this question. It had to be answered so carefully. I explained the special classes he took and the way sometimes he’d read the same books over and over, how when he was angry, it was like he couldn’t hear anyone. I told you about the funny jokes we shared and how he protected me. I told you that he was my hero.

You told me, “Your brother is retarded.”

I didn’t know what that meant. But you said that’s what your dad called kids like my brother. I thought it couldn’t be bad. After all, dads couldn’t be mean. Right?

Later I learned, through tear-stained cheeks and disappointment, that dads could be mean, and maybe yours was.

I sang more after that. I decided the world needed more people singing. I kept spinning on the merry-go-round while blurry faces tried to teach me words they didn’t know the meanings to, and I stopped wondering if magic was real. I know that it is. How else could words, tiny words, change everything? I realized that there is magic in the spells people cast on each other every day. The things we say to others are simple incantations that change the ways people perceive each other, the ways we love and treat one another. Sometimes the charms we put on people are curses, conjurations that never let go. I stopped wondering if magic was real. I decided I wasn’t going to be put under any more spells.

I haven’t let anyone else tell me who my brother is since then. I know.

He was a boy in special classes because he was special. He deserved something different than the classrooms of kids that would try to teach him the R-word.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry your dad taught you to talk like that. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you it was mean.

To the little girl who taught me the R-word, I hope you’ve expanded your vocabulary.

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