Words, we know, are powerful. Some are so formidable that polite people can abide no more of them than their first letter. In a few cases, they carry such force that their use is a matter not just of poor manners but of dangerously weak character.
Ela Stoklosa, of Prospect Heights, brought that message to MacArthur Middle School this week with a simpler and clearer eloquence.
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"If someone calls you Shorty or Four Eyes or any other name that makes fun of you, it doesn't feel very good, does it?" Stoklosa, a 21-year-old Special Olympics athlete with Down syndrome, asked an audience of percolating adolescents.
If those words hurt, she suggested, imagine the ostracizing loneliness of being dismissed as r- ... well, as the R-word.
Stoklosa's presentation capped off a campaign at MacArthur intended to sensitize students to the potential for their words to sting in ways they might never consider. This effort to "stomp the R-word," part of a national awareness drive called "R-Word. Spread the word to end the word," is repeated at junior high and high schools throughout the suburbs, but its message surely ought not be restricted to teenage ears.
As merchants who traffic in words, we know full well their singular influence. They can, when arranged into the proper order, as playwright Thomas Stoppard has said, move the world. But they can at times have as much potential for harm as for good.
In a somewhat different context, the Ad Council presses a similar message with its current campaign using NBA stars to combat use of the word gay to mean dumb or stupid. "You're better than that," seven-time All-Star Grant Hill intones. And we need him to be right.
That habit, like the use of the R-word that Stoklosa and special needs advocates disdain, indicates a deeper, broader threat than just the danger of offending someone's sensibilities. When such terms become an accepted part of our casual vernacular, they form a seam of insensitivity that leaches through society, weakening us all at our core.
The late comedian George Carlin built a career on the notion that "there are no bad words, only bad uses of words," and in a certain context he may have been onto something. But as is too often demonstrated in daily use from the playground to the family dinner table, some words are far more prone to bad uses than others.
So, when a 21-year-old athlete with special needs summons whatever it is that it takes to confront a crowd of lively middle school students, a few R words might come to mind. Remarkable, for one. Perhaps respectable for another. Resilient, rapt, resourceful, resolute ...
Any of these will do and many others beginning with all the letters of the alphabet.
Just, please, avoid -- indeed, stomp it if you will -- that one powerful and cruelly painful adjective, which we'll just leave at the R-word.