"Hey Mister - Is She Retarded?"
by Steve Volkert
“Hey Mister – is she retarded?”
“Is she retarded? She sure acts like she’s retarded.”
We were on vacation – just a long weekend really. Spending some time at the Iowa Lakes. Just kicking back, relaxing, trying to regroup and recharge. Stacy and I were in the swimming pool, splashing and playing like any other daddy and daughter would, not a care in the world. Not thinking or worrying about the differences we have learned to live with over the past nine years.
Then along comes this very inquisitive, very, very straight-forward seven year old kid with a question – “Hey mister – is she retarded?”
Talk about an emotional roller coaster. My first reaction was to grab Stacy, get as far away from here as possible, and sit down and cry. Then I thought about REALLY letting this kid have it. I mean both barrels! Something like, “How DARE you, you blankety-blank little twirp!” Or, maybe if I just held her underwater for awhile, maybe it would clear her thinking and wash out her mouth!
Then I looked around. There was not just this one little girl, but four of them. The other three were a little older and were looking at the questioner as if to say, “How can you be so dumb?” One of them even said, “You don’t ask questions like that.”
I looked into the eyes of the girl who had just ripped my heart out. I didn’t see hatred or hurt, but the innocence of youth. From somewhere deep inside, a voice asked, “So, what are you going to do?”
To make a long story short, we stood in the pool and talked. Talked about what it means to be different. Talked about sign language. Talked about how everybody is special, how everybody has something they have problems with, and about working together to help each other. For the next two days, Stacy and our new-found friends were inseparable. Then we all went our separate ways.
That was three years ago. This past summer, we were again at the lakes when I heard someone say. Hey, Stacy! Remember me?” You guessed it – same kid! Only this time she had different questions. What grade are you in? What school do you go to? Are you having fun this summer? This time she was talking to Stacy – not about Stacy! Then this little girl, the same one who had torn my heart out not so long ago, reached out and touched my heart again. It was impossible to hide the tears when I heard her say, “You know what Stacy? I’ve been telling all my friends at home about you. And you know what else? I think I’d like to be a special ed. Teacher someday.”
Steve Volkert lives and works on a family farm in northwest Iowa. In addition to farming, he works part-time as a parent coordinator for the Parent-Educator Connection Program at the area education agency where his wife, Mary, works as an inclusion association in a first-grade classroom. Steve and Mary have three children – Chad, 18; Jeff, 15; and Stacy, now 14.
Published in “Fathers Voices,”Exceptional Parent magazine, April, 1995.