The R-Word

by Nina Liane Richards

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.

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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?

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This piece was originally published thirteen months ago, but we want to share it with new readers. In the meantime, Nina has gotten married, thus the change in her last name.  Also, since her piece was originally published, bullying has been in the news even more.  And a group has been formed to educate the public against the use of “the R- word.”  Here is a link to the Spread the Word campaign.STW-Partners-Un-Dated-Dark

Comments

  1. I was more aware of the outsiders – but I didn’t try to fit in with the cool kids – preferred to be one of the outsiders…they accepted you for you – not a copy-cat of them…still that way to this day…

    Good post…

  2. I always identified with the misfits. It’s been my experience though that some people are compelled to go the opposite way and try desperately to fit in with the “cool kids”.

    • William, your answer is similar to TAO. But your comment about others going “the opposite way” strikes home as I think that is how it was for my kids wanting to be cool and have lots of friends. They were sensitive to others, but craved popularity.

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