Soeren Palumbo's Speech

I want to tell you a quick story before I start. I was
walking through hallways, not minding my own business, listening to
the conversations around me. As I passed the front door on my way to
my English classroom, I heard the dialogue between two friends
nearby. For reasons of privacy, I would rather not give away their
race or gender. So the one girl leans to the other, pointing to the
back of a young man washing the glass panes of the front door, and
says, "Oh my gaw! I think it is so cute that our school brings in
the black kids from around the district to wash our windows!" The
other girl looked up, widened her slanted Asian eyes and called to
the window washer, easily loud enough for him to hear, "Hey, Negro!
You missed a spot!" The young man did not turn around. The first
girl smiled a bland smile that all white girls - hell, all white
people - have and walked on. A group of Mexicans stood by and
laughed that high pitch laugh that all of them have.

So now it's your turn. What do you think the black window
washer did? What would you do in that situation? Do you think he
turned and calmly explained the fallacies of racism and showed the
girls the error of their way? That's the one thing that makes
racism, or any discrimination, less powerful in my mind. No matter
how biased or bigoted a comment or action may be, the guy can turn
around and explain why racism is wrong and, if worst comes to worst,
punch em in the face. Discrimination against those who can defend
themselves, obviously, cannot survive. What would be far worse is if
we discriminated against those who cannot defend themselves.

What then, could be worse than racism? Look around you and
thank God that we don't live in a world that discriminates and
despises those who cannot defend themselves. Thank God that every
one of us in this room, in this school hates racism and sexism and by
that logic discrimination in general. Thank God that every one in
this institution is dedicated to the ideal of mutual respect and love
for our fellow human beings. Then pinch yourself for living in a
dream. Then pinch the hypocrites sitting next to you. Then pinch
the hypocrite that is you. Pinch yourself once for each time you
have looked at one of your fellow human beings with a mental handicap
and laughed. Pinch yourself for each and every time you denounced
discrimination only to turn and hate those around you without the
ability to defend themselves, the only ones around you without the
ability to defend themselves. Pinch yourself for each time you have
called someone else a "retard".

If you have been wondering about my opening story, I'll tell
you that it didn't happen, not as I described it. Can you guess what
I changed? No, it wasn't the focused hate on one person, and no it
wasn't the slanted Asian eyes or cookie cutter features white people
have or that shrill Hispanic hyena laugh (yeah, it hurts when people
make assumptions about your person and use them against you doesn't
it?). The girl didn't say "hey Negro." There was no black person.
It was a mentally handicapped boy washing the windows. It was "Hey
retard." I removed the word retard. I removed the word that
destroys the dignity of our most innocent. I removed the single most
hateful word in the entire English language.

I don't understand why we use the word; I don't think I ever will.
In such an era of political correctness, why is it that retard is
still ok? Why do we allow it? Why don't we stop using the word?
Maybe students can't handle stopping- I hope that offends you
students, it was meant to - but I don't think the adults, here can
either. Students, look at your teacher, look at every member of this
faculty. I am willing to bet that every one of them would throw a
fit if they heard the word faggot or nigger - hell the word Negro -
used in their classroom. But how many of them would raise a finger
against the word retard? How many of them have? Teachers, feel free
to raise your hand or call attention to yourself through some other
means if you have. That's what I thought. Clearly, this obviously
isn't a problem contained within our age group.

So why am I doing this? Why do I risk being misunderstood
and resented by this school's student body and staff? Because I know
how much you can learn from people, all people, even - no, not even,
especially - the mentally handicapped. I know this because every
morning I wake up and I come downstairs and I sit across from my
sister, quietly eating her cheerio's. And as I sit down she sets her
spoon down on the table and she looks at me, her strawberry blonde
hair hanging over her freckled face almost completely hides the
question mark shaped scar above her ear from her brain surgery two
Christmases ago. She looks at me and she smiles. She has a
beautiful smile; it lights up her face. Her two front teeth are
faintly stained from the years of intense epilepsy medication but I
don't notice that anymore. I lean over to her and say, "Good
morning, Olivia." She stares at me for a moment and says
quickly, "Good morning, Soeren," and goes back to her cheerio's. I
sit there for a minute, thinking about what to say. "What are you
going to do at school today, Olivia?" She looks up again. "Gonna
see Mista Bee!" she replies loudly, hugging herself slightly and
looking up. Mr. B. is her gym teacher and perhaps her favorite man
outside of our family on the entire planet and Olivia is thoroughly
convinced that she will be having gym class every day of the week. I
like to view it as wishful thinking. She finishes her cheerio's and
grabs her favorite blue backpack and waits for her bus driver, Miss
Debbie, who, like clockwork, arrives at our house at exactly
7'o'clock each morning. She gives me a quick hug goodbye and runs
excitedly to the bus, ecstatic for another day of school.

And I watch the bus disappear around the turn and I can't help but
remember the jokes. The short bus. The retard rocket. No matter
what she does, no matter how much she loves those around her, she
will always be the butt of some immature kid's joke. She will always
be the butt of some mature kid's joke. She will always be the butt
of some "adult"'s joke. By no fault of her own, she will spend her
entire life being stared at and judged. Despite the fact that she
will never hate, never judge, never make fun of, never hurt, she will
never be accepted. That's why I'm doing this. I'm doing this
because I don't think you understand how much you hurt others when
you hate. And maybe you don't realize that you hate. But that's
what is; your pre-emptive dismissal of them, your dehumanization of
them, your mockery of them, it's nothing but another form of hate.
It's more hateful than racism, more hateful than sexism, more hateful
than anything. I'm doing this so that each and every one of you,
student or teacher, thinks before the next time you use the
word "retard", before the next time you shrug off someone else's use
of the word "retard". Think of the people you hurt, both the
mentally handicapped and those who love them. If you have to, think
of my sister. Think about how she can find more happiness in the
blowing of a bubble and watching it float away than most of will in
our entire lives. Think about how she will always love everyone
unconditionally. Think about how she will never hate. Then think
about which one of you is "retarded".

Maybe this has become more of an issue today because society is
changing, slowly, to be sure, but changing nonetheless. The mentally
handicapped aren't being locked in their family's basement anymore.
The mentally handicapped aren't rotting like criminals in
institutions. Our fellow human beings are walking among us,
attending school with us, entering the work force with us, asking for
nothing but acceptance, giving nothing but love. As we become more
accepting and less hateful, more and more handicapped individuals
will finally be able to participate in the society that has shunned
them for so long. You will see more of them working in places you
go, at Dominicks, at Jewel, at Wal-Mart. Someday, I hope more than
anything, one of these people that you see will be my sister.
I want to leave you with one last thought. I didn't ask to have a
mentally handicapped sister. She didn't choose to be mentally
handicapped. But I wouldn't trade it for anything. I have learned
infinitely more from her simple words and love than I have from any
classroom of "higher education". I only hope that, one-day, each of
you will open your hearts enough to experience true unconditional
love, because that is all any of them want to give. I hope that,
someday, someone will love you as much as Olivia loves me. I hope
that, someday, you will love somebody as much as I love her. I love
you, Olivia.

Soeren Palumbo