I still sometimes use the word retarded, and I use it as a synonym for fucking idiot. Every time I do a person with a disability is marginalized and a baby dolphin dies, probably brutally murdered by a person with a disability who finally snaps after years of being discriminated against by assholes like me. I also say awesome, and I overuse the word interesting to substitute for saying that something is so completely uninteresting that it isn’t even worth the energy to say the “un” part, like if someone tells me they are going to try a new brand of dog shampoo. That is interesting. I also use interesting when something is so problematic that I cannot even discuss it, like it is interesting that the morning after pill is not effective on women who weigh more than 166 pounds. That is interesting. Real fucking interesting.
I overuse the word like, and I hedge my conversations by using umm as a placeholder while I gather my thoughts. I try not to do these things, but they are engrained in the way I speak. I have been speaking this way for so long that it is difficult to alter my patterns. I am improving. I am a teacher, so I get to practice my public speaking skills five days a week. The umms are diminishing. I am almost cleansed of the likes. I hardly ever use retarded out loud anymore, but it is always the term that is in my head, and I have to translate to something more appropriate, the way a native French speaker might have to translate poisson to fish, when ordering at Long John Silvers. I am not translating from another language, though, just from another time before the Americans with Disabilities Act was filed because people, if left to their own devices, are selfish jerks.
My language abuse doesn’t cause me any major problems. I still speak close enough to the way people in power speak. I speak like a white, middle class woman (my likes might remove me slightly from the center of power, a giveaway for my gender). My voice could probably be used in GPS software, except that I would too often want to say things like, “Jesus Christ! Make a left turn now you retard.” However, my way of speaking doesn’t keep me from getting jobs. It doesn’t make people think I am lazy or stupid. Maybe they will think that I have terrible morals, and that I am going to hell, but people will still hire me, even to answer their phones.
In my twenties I had an endless string of receptionist jobs, despite the fact that I am terrible at the actual act of answering the phone. I can’t even answer the phone on Bluetooth in my car which just requires pushing a singular button—the button with the picture of a phone being picked up. I usually almost crash because I get so flustered from the surprise that someone is actually calling me. Phones with multiple lines and hold buttons are a complete mystery to me. When I answered the phones in an office, instead of using the intercom, I would usually just scream down the hall, “You have a phone call on . . . line 1?” I have terrible hearing and a poor short term memory, so often I would find myself staring at the blank message pad after the call. I would just make something up, “Socrates Morphine called to discuss your lunch plans next week, if you don’t have his number then obviously you aren’t that close.” I also thought it was a fun game if I could recognize the voice of the incoming caller before they identified themselves, “Hello Mrs. Eubanks! Oh this is John Harris calling? Right. How are you today, ma’am?”
People let me be their receptionist anyway. I look and sound like I am from a tidy, although maybe slightly slutty, suburb. I grew up in a family—in a community—where “standard” English was the norm. The language was like dollar bills, and I was born in a money grabber machine. The rhythm of the speech that exists in all the big shiny office buildings was just blowing around me, getting stuck in my hair, clinging to my clothes—always available. I did not have to put in extra effort in Language Arts. I did not have to switch from the way I spoke at home to be successful in school or in the workforce.
I was terrible at most of the jobs I had in my twenties. I made it clear that the job, which I was not great at performing, was beneath me, and I did not want to be there. I had no real skills, except that I was smart and when I told people how smart, there was something about the way I said it that made them believe me. Now I am a college writing instructor at a technical college. I don’t want all my students to talk and write like me. I want them to believe that their private language is powerful. I want to change the ideology that how people speak or write reflects their intelligence or their value, especially if it is varied from what has been established as “standard” or “correct” merely because it echoes the way people who already have the power speak and write. But I want my students to get jobs.
Honestly, most days I don’t know how to accomplish either of those goals: redefining the entire system of how we place significance on certain ways of speaking and writing or helping my students be successful writers in the unfair, mostly shitty world. Both tasks seem equally difficult. Generally, I just ignore everything outside of our cinder block walls. Today on a student’s paper I wrote the comment, “Ugly ass should probably be hyphenated because it modifies the noun mutt.” I don’t even know if that is correct. I encourage them to be creative. I told another student, “You are such a good writer, why do you want to go into nursing?” I probably ruined his life and the lives of all of the patients that he could have saved.
I just make them keep writing so they know they deserve to be heard, and usually when I read their writing, unencumbered by the voice of any real authority figure, I am in awe, and I feel confident flipping giant double birds to the shitty world and the grammar police. I am really not sure who left a retard, no a fucking idiot, like me in charge, but it is interesting.