MINDing our Words
During a recent Grade 3 Language Arts class, a spelling/vocabulary word of little note appeared on the dictation and usage list. The word was mental. It was defined as, having to do with the mind, a mental activity was not a physical one, and Chess was given as a real-life example. I would have thought this to be rather innocuous, and at best, a trivial moment in the day’s affairs. As is often the case, what was deemed to be insignificant by an adult was not always so in the mind of a third grade student who has other ideas. Quite innocently, one of my students raised his hand and stated, “Sir, there is a boy at my swimming class who’s mental.” Not to be out done, another student chimed in and announced that, “There’s this man where I go shopping who is quite mental and yells things.” Full stop, (to borrow an over-used term) a teachable moment the size of a Mack truck had descended upon all of us in the third grade. I quickly halted the dictation and explained that the boy at the swimming class is probably Mentally Challenged and the man at the shopping centre was unfortunately mentally ill. A pause shrouded the room, but my explanation had switched on the levers of the eager young brains before me; I could tell because half of them looked in the air and everyone’s eyes, including mine, were shifting back and forth. The pensive silence was broken by another student, who, having heard all of the aforementioned semantics, came to this conclusion: “Sir, I am not great in Math; I think I am Mentally Challenged.” Oh boy!
I often think that one of the reasons I have enjoyed teaching boys for some thirteen years, with some measure of success, is derived from a Germanic cultural attribute of being clear in one’s tone and intent, and not couching language in ambiguous niceties. Naturally, one needs to weave in a measure of Canadian diplomacy and sensitivity especially in an elementary school setting. However, the level of this “so called” couched language in ambiguous niceties has morphed out of its agreeable tenet found in the social graces into language that is in itself perplexing and defeatist to whom it is supposedly helping or defining without insult- political correctness run amuck. To borrow from a true observer of Western cultural discourse, comedian George Carlin (1937 – 2008) lamented the issue of mental illness in regards to soldiers.
“In the first World War, that condition was called ‘Shell Shock.’ Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables. Shell Shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves. That was seventy years ago. Then a whole generation went by, and the Second World War came along. And the very same combat condition was called ‘Battle Fatigue.’ Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say, doesn't seem to hurt as much. ‘Fatigue’ is a nicer word than ‘shock.’ Then we had the war in Korea in 1950. The very same combat condition was called ‘Operational Exhaustion.’ And the humanity has been completely squeezed out of the phrase, it's totally sterile now. Operational Exhaustion, sounds like something that might happen to your car! Then, of course, came the war in Vietnam, the very same condition was called ‘Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.’ Still eight syllables, but we've added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon. ‘Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.’ I'll bet you if we'd have still been calling it Shell Shock, some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. I'll bet you that.” -George Carlin
Back to Grade 3, innocence and curiosity demands an answer. Unlike, Carlin’s observation of Shell Shock, the language surrounding those whom we now refer to as Mentally Challenged has had a rather unfortunate and disingenuous past. Early 20th Century words (Morons, Imbeciles, and Idiots) for those with an Intelligent Quotient (I.Q.) under 70 have devolved into modern insults. They were replaced with the term Mental Retardation. The American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities posits, “The term Intellectual Disability covers the same population of individuals who were diagnosed previously with Mental Retardation.” Depending on where one resides in the English speaking world the two terms, Mentally Challenged or Intellectual Disability, hold sway in polite language. The inherent difficulty, as seen in Grade 3, is that the term is ambiguous and can devolve into less than appropriate language. While mental doesn’t quite have the same sting as perhaps those early 20th Century desig-nations, the short form of the 1970’s identification of Mental Retardation (Retard), surely does. The unfortunate paradox is that its replacement terms in polite language often fail to make the correct connection to this disability. So what does a parent or teacher do with this controversial issue in language? Address it. Depending on the maturity of the class or individual, the following can be done:
1) Correct the student gently and inform them of the proper language. Don’t stop there. Most will.
2) Make it clear that the words Mental and Retard are short forms of medical terms that have become insults.
3) Most importantly, relate to them that the use of those words actually go far beyond that of an insult and hurt all Mentally Challenged people, their opportunities in life, and their devoted families.
4) I often relay to them personal stories of interaction with Mentally Challenged persons in my life.
By elementary school, and likely before, children learn that words are powerful and can wound others. They have a personal responsibility in how they wield them. Recently, a voracious reader in the fifth grade approached me with the work of Mark Twain. While I did not have the time to review his text and see if it indeed contained the racial epitaphs we now so view as vulgar and offensive, the book appeared as if it was in its original language written in Missouri of the 19th Century. While I will not repeat the word in question here, as I believe it has descended to the moral depths and depravities of English vulgarity, I did in fact inform him of the word in question, its etymology (derived from the word ignorant) and its severe impact on persons who might be affected by its utterance, which in fact, should be us all! It was predicated that while it was indeed tremendous literature, it was written in an era with faults and failings, and a lexicon which has now fallen out of favour in polite society. Mr. Domina (Headmaster), who appeared at the impromptu meeting fascinatingly and wisely, suggested that, “There are words and phrases we may use in daily communication and written text today, that in one hundred years might be deemed highly offensive, yet we have no indication that in 2013, that might be so.”
Education is knowledge, and its genuine and moral application is wisdom. Words shape the actions of others and us. They can elicit fear, prejudice, and anger; they can also usher in change, empathy and understanding. Words can also heal. While enrolled in my undergrad program, I had the pleasure of giving tours at Todmorden Mills Museum in the Don Valley. A disinterested high school class came through near the end of June. My colleague gave them a tour. Integrated into this trip was a mentally challenged young man. I offered to take him around as he was most interested in everything we had. I spent two hours talking about artefacts and answering all his questions. At the end of the tour, the rest of the class was primed to leave. However, this young man introduced me to his father and said, “This has been the best day of my life.” He paused, looked at me and stated, “You should be-come a teacher.” Herein lays the link from the lexicon to life. Were we to discount persons because of malicious or misunderstood words, we might, as author Steven Pinker (in another context) relates, “Miss out on the better angels of our nature.”
Manfred J. von Vulte