Thursday, April 24, 2008

Black Shirts

The Kellogg Conference Center in East Lansing is on the campus of Michigan State University and as such most of the staff there are young people attending university. As they are working, they are wearing 'official' clothing, business suits and dresses, staff uniforms, shirts and ties. To a one they look uncomfortable in their clothing. Like they are yearning for their baggy jeans and sweatshirts. The guy who checked us into the hotel was a handsome youth who's cheek had only recently seen a razor, if you squinted your eyes you could still see the little boy in the man's face. It's nice to be around these young people. They live their lives as if each moment is of such importance. For me, I find the moments that are of no value to have the most value. The moments where there is no industry, only rest - no ambition, only quiet - no drive, only peace, those moments that pile up at my feet ... they are the ones I value now. But these kids are years from understanding that.

I'm doing three very different talks at this conference and as such I need to organize myself a little differently than usual. Typically it's one day one topic. So I gather my notes and orient my mind to shift quickly and often. I begin the day with the keynote address. I arrive in the room to find that the podium has stairs, but a request later and a bunch of staff (all young students) tearing down the stairs and constructing a ramp. A few minutes later I am sitting on the stage. It's been a while since I've been on a stage, most places don't have the capacity for a wheelchair to access the stage. It's nice.

The talk I'm doing is called 'The R Word: helping people with disabilities deal with bullying and teasing' and I'm thrilled to be doing it at a keynote. I believe its an important topic, I believe we need to prepare people with disabilities to live in the real world - the one that has hateful people in it. So after the introduction, I leap into the talk. I know that the audience is engaged, you can always tell as a speaker. There is little movement in the room as I tell the stories I have to tell, people are focused. Notes are being taken. People are nodding in agreement about the word 'retard' about the similarity it has with other hateful words used to disparage other minorities. They get it.

Over at the side of the room, two young people are beginning the preparations for the food and drink that will be offered at first break. They are both wearing black shirts and black pants, the 'uniform' of the staff who work the conference center. He is maybe 22 and she, perhaps a year younger. I'd seen them setting up earlier on and they worked well together, talking and chatting as they did what needed to be done. At one point I notice Joe in the audience, I catch his eye and he guides my eye back over to the break table. The two young staff are standing there, unmoving, listening to my talk. Cool, I've caught their interest.

When it's over I was back to the book table to sign books and chat with people attending the conference. Appearing out of nowhere is the young man in black. The guy who had been listening earlier. I look up at him and his eyes are wet. He glances around as if to check and see if his movements are being noticed by a supervisor somewhere. Then he leans in and speaks, "I will never ever use that word again. I didn't understand before. I do now. I promise you, I'll never say it again."

And he was gone.

He will be a fine man. Anyone that young with the capacity to acknowledge need for change, with the ability to self-examine and the willingness to apologize will do well in this world. He made my day, not because he made a promise - but because he demonstrated that change is possible and therefore, hope exists.


Dorian said...

Your message made it through to another one, a young one too!! Sounds like a successful day.

I'm quite partial to the MSU Spartans. I grew up 50 miles from there and my parents both went there, that's where they met.

lina said...

Hope exists - it was always there - we just forget. Nice to be reminded!

Veralidaine said...

FABULOUS! I wish we could put your talk on national TV, worldwide TV, every household.

I'm fighting this battle on a forum I post on right now. They don't allow the use of derogatory terms for racial minorities, but they will not put in place a policy that disallows the R-word OR permits other members to call people out on using it and explain WHY it is not okay. In fact if someone uses it and you call them on it- YOU get a violation on your account.

It's going fairly well so far- most of the mods are on my side except one- but I just can't believe that in this day and age there are so many educated people who post funny, interesting things in this silly world of the internet, yet still don't know better than to use hate speech against society's most vulnerable.

Anonymous said...


Another reason not to retire - as if you needed one!


Anonymous said...

This is unbelievable. Thought you'd want to see it.

Susan said...