"No, you're not!!" Brian was insistant. It was my first year as a consultant and I'd been assigned a school to the far north of the region. A young boy there, Brian, had been referred for hitting other kids and, once, throwing a rock at a group of kids. It wasn't long before it was reported to me, by Brian not the school, that Brian was a victim of teasing. He had been called names, lots of them, and using a rock as his defense he tried to silence them.
Truth to tell, I hated walking into that school the first time. Memories of "Lardass" and "Fatso" echoed along with my footfalls in the hallway. No one called me names there that day, probably because I was being escorted to the 'special' classroom by the principal who was waxing horrific over the 'lads' behaviour. I was to design a behaviour programme to bring his behaviour under control. That was my job and I would do it.
But after a couple of visits to the school, I fell into chatting with Brian. He had the sullenness that youth are particularly good at - but he thought I was funny and he was easy to engage in conversation. I wanted him to talk to me about the teasing. I wanted to surprise him with the news that bullying went back to the Roman Empire - you know, when I went to school. Finally he openned up.
The upset about the teasing I expected but what was troublesome was his denial of his disability. "They called me retarded. I'm not retarded," he had said. I wanted him to understand that he was different, sure, but that he shouldn't be subject to mean taunts. The word 'disphobia' now growing in common use to describe hateful and bigotted attitudes and practices towards people with disabilities had not yet been conceived or coined - but I wanted him to understand at least prejudice. The best way to deal with prejudice is pride, not denial.
"Look at me," I had said, "I'm fat."
"You're not fat." He said. A simple statement. Well, if I'm not fat then 99 percent of the world is anorexic. "Yes, I am" I said. He was resolute, but I insisted. He relented, "Well, you aren't fat to me."
"Brian, I am fat. It's OK that I'm different. It's not OK for people to call me names. It's not OK for people to laugh at me. They're wrong to do that. But, still, I'm fat."
"But 'fat' is a bad word. My mom told me not to call people 'fat'." I told him that the word 'fat' just described me. Calling me 'fatso' or 'lardass' was something very different.
Brian, like many people with disabilities, could see the disabilities of his peers while his own was invisible to him. He wouldn't admit it. Not yet. The cost of being disabled just seem too high to him, but I knew the price that denial would one day take on his soul.
We spent that year working on a behaviour programme that had data points and graphs. But we also spent the year talking. Brian slowly started to identify has having difficulty with learning and maybe being a tad slower than the others. As his self honesty started to grow, so did his self esteem. People who lie to themselves, never ever ever love themselves.
The teasing slowly stopped because Brian started to understand that he didn't have to react, more, he didn't need to care - the people who called him names were just mean. Near the end of the year I was walking with him at recess and one of the lovely children, one of the one's who gives her mother such joy, she was such a dainty tresure, called out, "Who's your fat friend Bryyyyyyyyyan?" I've always thought it fitting that those who spoke ugly words always said them from ugly mouths set in ugly faces.
He looked at her and said defiantly, no shame in being with me, "His name is Dave." That was it.
On the way back to school he said, "You know you are kind of fat." I laughed, loud, it startled him. "Yeah, Brian and you're kind of slow." He laughed too and raced ahead of me to the classroom. When I got there he said, "You're a bit slow too."
I leaned up against the wall and laughed till the tears came flowing down. Brian grinned for a bit and then burst into giggles. The teacher, always sensitive to the moment shushed us.
Brian, the slow kid, did just fine.