October 29, 2007
by Amanda Jones
Age 8 at the time
I had a pedestrian, mildly tortured school experience learning to sort between what mattered and what didn’t, with just the typical betrayals and embarrassments. It was my brother who suffered the brunt of pre-teen flailing, and watching what he went through taught me more than all the bullying I endured.
Marco was (and still is) my sweet older brother. As a child he was scrawny, friendly, funny, affectionate, and energetic. And he had Williams Syndrome, which meant he was a special needs kid. Only in those days no one had yet thought up political correctness, so my brother was just “retarded.”
Williams Syndrome is a genetic disorder with a long, scary list of symptoms. When I look up the most common of them, it says: “Unusual facial structure, developmental retardation, short stature, heart problems, and puffiness around the eyes. Personality traits include being overtly friendly, trusting strangers, and an affinity for music.” My brother had all of these. He still does.
For most of elementary school other children were kind to Marco. They included him in games and they’d even willingly invite him to their birthday parties. But at age 12 this swiftly changed. As hormones began their insidious creep, many friendships turned into outright cruelty.
My brother and I did not go to school together. He went to an all-boys school, and I went to an all-girls. But we lived opposite a park and would go there together almost daily. I was three years younger. He was my only sibling, my big brother, my friend, and often my rival and archenemy. I loved him. I didn’t know to be embarrassed of him, even when he laughed inappropriately loudly or let fly with the animal noises he was prone to making when overexcited. But as he got older he would embarrass the other kids, as if just knowing him made them uncool.
One awful day my mother was called to school early, bringing Marco home with red eyes even puffier than normal. Two former friends had cornered him and beaten him up in the bathroom, calling him Mongol, circus freak, animal. He could not understand what had happened, and his face registered only confusion and disorientation. And for the first time in my life I felt real, adult rage. It sped through me like fire, closing my throat and making me break out in sweat. I was eight years old and I had just felt the shock of injustice.
Marco stayed home for a week to recover. There were hushed phone calls and the low hum of my mother’s fury venting into the mouthpiece. Marco and I lived alone with our mother. Our father had hit the road with a younger woman when I was five. He couldn’t handle raising a “retard.” At the time I didn’t think much about what it must have taken for my mother to raise the two of us alone for so many years. Now I do, and I am staggered.
A month after the “incident,” Marco and I encountered the perpetrators at our park. My brother flinched when he saw them, his “overt friendliness” damaged. He wanted to go home. He started making noises. His hands came up over his head. The boys, angry that the "retard" had caused them innumerable hours of detention, strode towards him, their fists balling, mouths ugly grimaces. At first fear turned my legs and stomach soft. And then, like some sort of miraculous intervention, the rage hit me again and I became possessed. I raced towards the boys yelling words that had never dared cross my lips before.
“You bastards.” (I’d heard my mother call my absent father that often and suspected it was a terrible slight.)
“You stupid, mean little bastards. You assholes. You keep away from my brother!”
And my God, it worked. It actually worked. The boys didn’t know what to do next. They stopped, their faces froze and they stood there looking just like stupid little assholes.
The best part of all is that my brother started to laugh. He laughed his inappropriately loud laugh with a few animal noises thrown in for good measure. The boys sloped off, vanquished, with that sound at their backs. It was wonderful. Admittedly I was an eight-year-old girl and even mean boys probably knew better than to beat up on a small female child, but it was the first genuinely empowering moment of my life. And I guess I learned that it was actually possible to stand up against injustice.
Many years later, I used my brother shamelessly as an acid test for the men I dated. If they were embarrassed of my brother or they were mean or ignored him (and most did), they didn’t last long. They were filed in the “stupid asshole” category and dispatched. And then I met a guy who was different. He didn’t deal with Marco like he was retarded. He wasn’t overly condescending or patronizing or even sickly solicitous. He treated him like an adult who liked to laugh loudly, hug people, and dance erratically. He called him Big Man, which made Marco’s skeletal chest swell with pride. Greg was doing an MBA at an elite business school filled with future captains of industry who wore button-down shirts. One night, he invited Marco and me to a party with his fellow students. I was edgy, thinking that my brother’s unbridled enthusiasm for singing and dancing, or even the animal noises, might cause a scene, and I really liked Greg and didn’t want to have to dispatch him quite so quickly.
When we got there, Greg casually took Marco around, introducing him not as his girlfriend’s brother, but as his “buddy.” He gave Marco a beer and let him loose. Hours later, from across the room, I noticed a circle forming on the dance floor. With rising dread, I broke through the crowd to face what was happening. Marco and Greg were both lying on their backs, spinning in circles, breakdancing to “Red, Red Wine” by UB40. The crowd cheered and clapped and my brother hooted and glowed. Marco had found a hero, and I had found a husband.
I guess the moral to this story is that in the end, it’s much cooler not to be a stupid, mean bastard.