By Alexis Streb
A time comes when silence is betrayal.
~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I never looked up when my friends were talking and joking about the "Retarded Boy" (as they referred to him) a few tables away. It didn't even cross my mind that he might feel bad when people whispered about him, or that he might be hurt when he saw the weird, disgusted looks from his peers. So I just let them talk, and I never intervened.
Then came the day I was standing in the kitchen helping with dinner, asking my mom about my brother's doctor's appointment. They were testing him for autism. My parents had told me there was a huge chance of it coming out positive, but I had never thought about him like that. My brother, Captain, four years old at the time, had always been my best friend. We would wrestle, play games and have the best of times together, even though we were far apart in age. My mom told me about the appointment, and when she got to the point about the test, she stopped. I turned around and she had tears in her eyes. I stared at her, wishing she would say something, when I realized what that silence meant. My eyes got blurry and my breathing got very ragged. "The test came out positive, sweetheart," she said with a calm voice. I broke down, crying and asking why it had happened to Captain.
My mom was trying to pull me together, saying that Captain couldn't see me like this and I had to be a big girl, when the front door opened, and Captain, our three-year-old sister Cali, and my father came in. I walked out of the kitchen. Captain was talking to our dad and then stopped, switching his attention to me. As he looked up at me with those huge blue eyes, I had to look away. I couldn't look at him. Everything had just changed. He was no longer that little baby brother who was just a normal little boy anymore. He was a little boy with a disease who didn't deserve anything that was going to come with it.
Over time, I was able to accept his disease a little more. We had to move a while later because Captain needed treatment and where we lived at the time didn't have the type he needed. So we moved to Maryland. Time passed and Captain and I both started at a new school. One day, I was standing in the bus line waiting when the "short bus" came and picked some kids up. The children in the other line started making jokes about the "retards" on that bus and I felt a strange feeling in my stomach. One that I had never felt before. As the other kids laughed about the cruel jokes, I said, quietly, that those comments weren't very nice. No one listened and I went on my way. I regretted it immediately, and wished I had said something else.
My family moved once more to a new school and I was given my chance to speak up pretty quickly. During band class, my teacher, Mrs. Young, stopped our playing to give us some feedback.
"Guys, we're playing like the kids on the short bus! Come on!" I felt that same feeling I had on the bus line, except worse. This was an adult, and I thought adults would be more careful about what they said. Apparently, ignorance comes in all different ages. The entire room was laughing when I raised my hand. I wasn't sure what I was going to say but I wanted to be heard.
"Yes, Alexis?" Mrs. Young asked. The class quieted down because the new girl was about to talk for the first time. I could feel my face getting red and was about to just say never mind, when my mouth opened and this came out:
"I don't think we should make fun of the short bus, because there are a lot of people on that bus who have great personalities and have the same feelings we do." I could feel my voice getting louder. "And also, I know some people on those buses and they are some of the most caring, sweetest, and smartest people so I would appreciate it if you didn't make fun of them."
The room was very quiet and everyone stared at me. Mrs. Young apologized for the comment and then started the song again. Everyone was a little on edge. At the end of the class, everyone was giving me weird looks and sizing me up. They looked like they were labeling me a nerd right off the bat, but I didn't care, because I knew three things: I had spoken the truth and what others in the class were probably thinking, I had taught everyone something, and while everyone in the classroom was being a follower, I had decided to take a different path. I want to become a leader and a positive role model and go on to teach others about people on the "short bus." I want to teach people about my brother Captain, who doesn't know that he's different. And really, he's not. He's just a five-year-old who loves baseball and eating cookies, and I never want to hear anybody make fun of him.