Exercise class had just begun and some of the other students were joking about how this was the “slow” class, because we’re mostly newbies. Uh-oh, I thought, already seeing where this was going.
Sure enough, a few students made the “we’re the special class” joke, and then another one said it: “They’ll have to send the short bus.”
“My son used to ride that bus,” I said quietly. “Can you not make that joke?”
Someone muttered an apology. “Thanks,” I said, and let it drop.
I have no idea whether the other students respected my stance and felt at all bad about their “jokes,” or whether they waited for me to leave so they could complain about blah blah political correctness and you can’t say anything anymore and it was fine to make these jokes when we were kids and how come everybody’s so sensitive now?
Now, I don’t totally expect people of, let’s say certain generations to understand how the ground has shifted around them. Yep, it sure was okay to make those jokes when they were kids. I heard those jokes when I was a kid.
But it was never okay.
I’ll repeat: It was NEVER OKAY.
It’s just that people didn’t think the feelings of special needs kids mattered then. Or that special needs kids mattered, period.
My son is 12, and he knows he’s not like the other kids. They laugh at him. And if he ever heard an adult making those jokes, it would crush him.
He’s not required to “toughen up” so the people around him get to keep being jerks without consequence. The people around him need to not be jerks.
I say this as a kidlit writer, and as a parent. What we pass on to the next generation matters. That includes what we joke about, and how, and what that shows about whether we respect the other person.
If people are serious about wanting to change the mental health problem in our country, if they at all agree that we need to raise awareness, it’s not enough to say, “Well, I don’t make those jokes.” They also shouldn’t stand by while someone else makes those jokes.
If someone is saying something mean, or crude or obnoxious, about another person or group of people whose great offense is being different from them—if they’re punching down, as the saying goes—anyone listening has the power to stop it. Anyone listening. Because nothing changes unless we stand up for each other, and look out for each other.
You want to joke around? Great, me too! But get some different material. Plenty of other things to joke about.
So, we’ll see what happens at the next class. Maybe the others will just ignore me. But maybe speaking up changed something. You never know.