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I Was Once the Bully Who Called My Kid 'Retarded'

Photograph by AFP/Getty Images

Because we have a child with Down syndrome, school breaks often present a challenge for our family. Looking for activities and camps for our son requires extra steps, extra scrutiny and invariably, extra costs.

Our son is now 9 years old, and this year we decided to enroll him in the YMCA camp because he takes swim lessons at the Y and is involved with other sports there. The local Y has provided a nice community for us.

We hoped that the small size of the camp and the staff's familiarity with our family would make it an easy and comfortable place for him. (I've found over the years that many organizations don't assimilate children who are different well. The willingness and ability to incorporate children who aren't typical into a program is not something you notice if you're not looking for it. In my family, this issue takes priority.)

But the first day at camp, our son learned that 9-year-old children aren't necessarily willing to make adjustments for him. While he is enthusiastic and very much a team player, it takes him a little more time to catch on. He also has a speech delay, which means that listeners must be patient.

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On the third day of camp, my worst nightmare was realized. My son called me to explain that he'd spent a half-day at camp and the rest of the day with his Lala (grandma). I asked him to put his father on the phone, who explained that he'd called the camp because of a bad feeling he'd had.

Tears started to fall from my eyes as I listened to my son's father explain that he wasn't taking him back to camp.

The staff told him that our son was crying and having a hard time. His dad went to the camp to see what was going on, and when he arrived our son told him one of the boys had called him retarded and wouldn't include him in the games. Hearing these words I was reminded of the occasion when, as a teenager, I'd been cruel to a child who had cerebral palsy. Tears started to fall from my eyes as I listened to my son's father explain that he wasn't taking him back to camp, and that his grandmother had agreed to keep him for the remaining days.

When we hung up the phone, I felt so much fear about my son's future. It's been my job to help him learn to communicate and to assure him we are here to support him. For an instant, I wanted to hurt that kid, but immediately I remembered being that kid, over 30 years ago. I remembered the boy I teased on the school bus for no good reason other than just being mean and ignorant. I recalled how wrong I was for telling jokes about him and speaking unkindly to him, and I knew that the little boy at camp wasn't aware of the impact he was having on my son. I cried for the teen I was, the boy I teased, my son, and the boy who teased him. I cried for hours until there were no more tears.

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The next morning when I woke up I realized that some part of me had been waiting for the day when my son would encounter a kid like the kid I was—a kid who can't make space for children who are different, a kid who isn't compassionate or uses humor inappropriately at the expense of those who can't defend themselves.

I couldn't help but feel that the universe was giving me a chance to see how impactful we are, even when we are not thinking about it. I wonder if the kid on my bus told his mother about being teased by me, and if she cried or told him to ignore those mean kids.

After checking in with my son and learning that he was OK, I told him I loved him and that he never needs to worry about feeling unsafe and alone again. I think we've finally learned that camps designed for children with special needs will best serve our needs from here on out. And although I've long known that what goes around always comes back around, the truth of that concept has become painfully present.

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