The R-Word

by Nina Schidlovsky

Tommy Jacobs had a nose that was scrunched to his face and buck teeth. His voice was high pitched and a little nasally. His ears were big and clung to his head a little too tightly—like God had flattened them with a hot iron. He hugged his textbooks to his chest when he walked and his feet waggled around oddly.

He sat at the back of the school bus where people laughed at him and call him names. They threw paper at him while calling him “The Amazing Retarded Bat Boy” like they were at some overpriced freak show—taunting and poking their fingers through a barred cage.

Middle-schoolers were so cruel.

Every day on the bus ride home, he was prodded by grimy hands and pelted with wadded up pieces of soggy paper. Tommy cursed at those kids who made fun of him but they never stopped.

Every day as he passed my seat to get off the bus he stopped to look at me. He always smiled, his eyes sparkling with kindness, his nose wrinkling even more. He always said, “I hope you have a good day, Nina.” Then he continued through the gauntlet of nasty pre-teens, continuously teasing him all the way to the bus door.

At school Tommy and I started walking to classes together—our classrooms were next to each other. During our walks he talked about his day and even tried to tell me jokes. I didn’t get them but I pretended to because I wanted to hear his laugh—a seldom heard sound. For the first time, someone was finally laughing with him, not at him.

Walking to my seat on the bus home, a chorus of “Nina and Tommy sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G” accompanied my entrance. “Tommy is Nina’s boyfriend!” They sneered.

“He’s not my boyfriend!” I screamed. My face grew hot. I felt boxed in. Caged. Scared. Furious. I realize now that this is how Tommy must have felt every day.

He tried to sit next to me. He tried to be my friend. He tried to reach out to me. One day of being teased and I couldn’t take it. I wish I had had his strength and courage. I had already caved to peer pressure. “Get away from me, you retard!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.

I could see the tears welling up behind his eyes but he didn’t let them go—he was stronger than that. He was certainly stronger than me. He nodded silently. Then he took his seat at the back.

“I hope you have a good day, Nina.” He said sullenly as he stepped off the bus.

To this day, at twenty-five years old, I am still ashamed of what I said. The look of pure betrayal on Tommy’s face will haunt me forever.


Question from the editors:  If you have personal experience, do you think that adoptees are more in tune with outsiders and/or more apt to need to conform?


  1. Lisa DeNike Ercolano says:

    Nina, thank you very much for sharing this, as it took courage and honesty. I think it is safe to say that we have all had similar experiences and like you, many of us look back and wish we had done things differently. We can’t change what we did or didn’t do in the past, but as you know, we can go forward and do things a little differently in the future.

    • Nina Schidlovsky says:

      Thank you for your kind words. By sharing my not so good choices, I was hoping to help someone else make the right one.

  2. Sad story, Nina. It’s tough to be a scapegoat, and I can see why you didn’t want that role. Children, by definition, don’t know how to cope with such situations in an adult way. So I think it’s time you let yourself off the hook. Instead of feeling guilty, do things to stop bullying. This essay is a great start.

    All the best to you now and in the future,


    • Nina Schidlovsky says:

      I know that children area easily manipulated by peer pressure to fit in. My previous job was teaching martial arts classes and camps. I did my best to make all the kids feel included. If someone was sitting by themselves I would talk to one of the other children and ask if it was ok if the excluded child sat at their table. They always ended up inviting the lonely one to play so I think that was a good start so far.

  3. Been there, done that, too… I threw a boy’s notebook out of the window just to “prove” to the rest of the boys and girls who kept teasing me that he wasn’t my boyfriend…. So, I so totally understand how you feel. Thank you so much for sharing this, Nina, and for your courage! Now my classmates and I are all in our thirties and we discovered that we have forgiven one another long ago… Hugs… when we forgive ourselves, we will see that we have already been forgiven a long time ago ~

    • Nina Schidlovsky says:

      Thank you, Allie. That means a lot. It’s crazy what girls and boys will do when backed into a corner by their peers.

      “when we forgive ourselves, we will see that we have already been forgiven a long time ago” Very well stated and beautiful. Thank you!

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