Yo soy La Lay

adventures in family, faith, and Down syndrome

On Language

Words are so powerful.  The problem is that words are also so tricky.

My life’s work is teaching students how to use new words to express themselves… to get what they need, to make a new friend, to experience the world differently.  The excitement of a student on a Monday morning who used Spanish to order in a restaurant on Saturday afternoon is beautiful.  16 year old teenagers beam from ear to ear as they tell me about how they understood someone in the checkout line at Jewel.  And I beam right back.   

One of the difficulties in teaching language is helping my students understand the differences in culture that can evoke strong emotion when a word is used incorrectly.  As a study abroad student in Ecuador, I lived with an absolutely wonderful family.  Toward the end of my stay with them, my host brother commented on how my host sister and I were similar.  He said that she and I are very intelligent, but like to have fun.  Trying to agree with him by saying that we are both kind of silly, I used the word “estupida” to describe my host sister and I.  Now, my Profe Junkroski taught me better than that back in my first year of Spanish, but in my rush to get my feelings out, I used a word that carries a much stronger meaning in Spanish than what I wanted to convey.  Her face flushed, as did mine…  it was painful and awkward.   

This is what happens when someone uses the word “retard” or any of its various forms.  

Let’s not mince words here.  The fact of the matter is that my child will most likely be mild to moderately mentally retarded.  That is an accepted and appropriate way for a professional to refer to her slower-than-typical cognitive function.  But it is not a word that is used to describe her as a person, nor is it appropriate for describing a mistake, or a rule that one might find bothersome.  It does not describe a friend who has done something silly, nor any other person or experience that is disagreeable.

You see, context is the tricky part of language.  And even the most mundane of words that we chose can evoke strong feelings in those around us.  Don’t believe me?  Say the word “mom” in front of someone who has just lost their mother or “pregnant” around someone who is struggling to conceive a child.  Don’t care?  That’s very sad and unfortunate for you.  

The reality is that we do not know the intricacies of the minds of those around us.  The joyful thing about language is that we have lots of words to use!  I’m not suggesting that one must avoid any and all words that could possibly evoke a negative reaction.  That is just impossible and quite unnecessary.  Again however, the word “retard” is only an appropriate way for a professional to refer to someone’s slower-than-typical cognitive function, and even there it is falling out of favor.  And rather than using the word “retard,” there are so many other ways to express ourselves that won’t turn the insides of our fellow human beings into knots.

When I called my host sister stupid, she and my host brother very graciously explained that the word I was looking for was “tonta,” with a meaning more similar to silly, which is what I actually meant.  If you hear the “r” word, might it be possible for you to do the same?

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Unmotivated Monday.

Last week was a busy week, the kind where each and every day you fall into bed exhausted, but can’t sleep because of the list going in your brain.  Most notably, we celebrated Tessa’s baptism (or, bathtism or paptism as Ellie called it… can you imagine a paptism????  No thank you.) and the week of preparation was intense.  However, we’re out on the other side of it now, with a happily cleansed child, newly developed colds, and a boatload of chili left in the freezer.   Pictures will come later, but I’ve decided that today will be “Unmotivated Monday,” so clearly an iPhone sync is not going to happen today.

As I’ve gathered from reading so many other moms who write about Down syndrome, and as I am quickly realizing, it is a tremendous task to not be fully consumed by my child’s differences and needs.  Compared to Ellie, Tessa has seen more doctors and had more appointments, has taken up more brain power and bookshelf space in two and a half months than in Ellie’s two and a half years.  When Ellie was born, I didn’t think twice about my only 7 weeks at home with her before returning to work.  Tessa will be 14 weeks when I head back at the end of the month.  While anxious to be back at school, I cross my fingers that it will be enough.

Today, there will be no focused exercises.  Besides running the dishwasher (because my child needs to eat and who wants to wash a dozen bottles and all of their pieces by hand?), the house will remain a mess.  Tessa and I are still wearing our clothes from last night.  We’re watching crummy TV and eating leftovers.  The books and websites are closed, the phone is on silent.  I do plan to make dinner, but also wouldn’t be surprised if another Chili’s To Go bag ends up on my kitchen table tonight.  And all of this is just fine.  As long as Unmotivated Monday doesn’t turn into Tuckered-out Tuesday and Wasted Wednesday, rest. is. good.

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Momma Bear is mad.

This is how I feel right now:

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(Thank you to the creator of that beautiful meme.)

No one will get in your way, Tessa. From mother to daughter, that is my promise to you.  YOU have a life worth living.

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