Local author's book examines the history of the 'R' word
With a mother as a reading instructor and a father who taught art, Dan Crofts’ life path may have seemed a creative given.
And his growing list of written works, including the most recent piece of fiction, is a testament to that prediction. “A Short History of the R-Word” is the Batavia native’s latest published book.
“The general lesson is relating to people on a level of our common reality,” Crofts said during an interview with The Batavian. “The way we treat each other has ripple effects. I’m interested in the debate around the R-word … and interested in language and the history surrounding it.”
The book begins with a tease of whether it’s based on a true story or not. Names and details “may have been altered,” Crofts says, but it goes no further to nail down the question.
He does admit that it’s a work of fiction, pulling a familiar character from Susan Conklin’s “Supernatural Genesee” and carrying him — Frank the Dwarf — onward to examine the past history of the word retard.
Crofts’ research led him to Latin and Eastern European roots. Never having been in those regions, Crofts struggled with how to genuinely write about them. He crafted a medium by which he could narrate the action. He chose magic binoculars as a way “to symbolize my distance to the location,” he said.
Yet local readers will find much familiarity with various aspects of the book, such as Ellicott Avenue, Lambert Park, and Robert Morris Elementary School. The story begins with Paul Schlepp and his three best friends messing about on the swing set at Robert Morris.
“Outwardly they prided themselves on being two years the seniors of those who had just graduated from this their alma mater; but an unspoken part of each of them missed the “kiddo” days, Crofts writes. “Amidst his reminiscing of childhood, Paul breaks the romance of nostalgia by noticing John.”
“Yo, is that that retard from the store?”
And a hurried flow of thinly veiled insults follow as the boys ask aloud, "does he talk?" "How could he be working in a store if he didn’t talk?" "Does he still live with his mom?" "He’s likely someone who touches little kids."
“It should be noted that the word used by Brandon and Paul — the notorious ‘r-word — was one all the boys were used to, and not least of all from the custom of using it on each other,” Crofts writes. “Any time one of them said or did anything really or apparently unintelligent, the word was as readily applied to him as to any disabled person, and with much less reticence about saying it to his face.”
Frank the Dwarf eventually makes his entrance and introduces Paul to the magic binoculars that can see the past. Paul experiences instances of when retard had an accent on the second syllable, originated in a different language, and meant “to slow down,” and not about a person’s character.
Frank the Dwarf talks to Paul about how the “speaking races” have the power to abuse each other as much as to lift one another up. Words are a part of us, Frank says.
“We have to take care of them,” he says.
The book evolved from a chapter Crofts, who has a bachelor's in English, began to write for a larger project of “journalistic, reflective and academic” contributions. After that project fell through, he kept expanding the chapter until it became a total work of its own, he said.
The topic is no stranger to the 36-year-old who works as a direct support professional at Arc Glow in Batavia and has written for an Autism Spectrum publication.
Henry J. Stratton II, who has shown his own pieces at Genesee Community College, illustrated the cover, and it was published by Batavia-based Applied Business Systems.
Copies of his book are $5 and will be available for purchase at Arc’s annual Chili and Chowder Fest. It runs from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the Community Center, 38 Woodrow Rd., Batavia. All proceeds will go toward Arc programs.
For more information, email Crofts at [email protected]