You could feel the excitement in the air. During recess earlier in the week, some of the boys decided it would be so much fun if we, the entire 6th grade, had a huge food fight. Word spread like wildfire and it was as if time stopped and the only thing on our minds was….well, throwing food at one another for fun.
Everything was set for the big event until that morning when our teacher, Mrs. Proctor, returned to class and asked us to put our pencils down. Her face was visibly angry so the natural buzz of classroom chatter grew instantly silent. Glaring at all of us, she spoke firmly. “The other 6th grade teachers and I have heard about the plan to have a food fight in the cafeteria.” She paused and then said loudly, “It….is….not…happening. Do I make myself clear?” We all nodded as she walked to her desk, asking us to open our history books and continue our lesson on Egypt.
Later that day, while I was trying to decide between a game of kick-soccer and jumping rope, a girl in another class came up to me and said, “Meg, how could you have?” I didn’t know what she meant at first, but it quickly became clear that my classmates were avoiding me and whispering. Confused, I sat by a tree until I was enlightened by my best friend Liane, who had done some necessary investigating. Apparently, someone decided that I had told the teachers about the food-fight, and just like that I became the pariah of Yankee Ridge school.
Distraught, I ran to my classroom, hoping to find Mrs. Proctor, with Liane following close behind me. With heavy tears streaming down my face, I asked Mrs. Proctor why the kids thought I had told her about the food fight plan when she and I both knew it was not the case. She looked confused, and then promised to speak to the other teachers to straighten things out.
The next day, with everyone in my grade except Liane giving me the evil-eye, Mrs. Proctor asked us all to sit on the carpet. She promptly explained that I had not told the teachers anything. In reality, she always kept the intercom on if she had to leave to go to the school office during the school day. All of us had been blabbing together about our plan freely, believing our discussion was private. Some of the students looked ashamed, but as I scanned my peers, others looked dubious.
In that moment, I felt nauseated and asked if I could be excused. I went straight to the nurse and asked if I could lie down. Would the other kids believe Mrs. Proctor or did they think she was just covering up for me? The stress of everything was simply too much. The next thing I knew, one by one, every student in the 6th grade (except Liane), came to visit me in the nurse’s office and offered me an apology. Each exchange was awkward, and I mainly said thanks without looking any of them in the eye.
When the last student finally left, Mrs. Proctor entered and put her arm around me, and held my one-fingered hand. “Now I hope that helped. I told them how important it was for them to be kind to you, given what had just happened.” I tried to smile but it would’ve been fake. Was being kind to me enough? I wondered.
Recently, I posted on the Don’t Hide It Flaunt It Facebook page about taking our kids to see the new movie, Wonder, written by RJ Palacio. When it was first published, Ethan was in 6th grade. We excitedly read the book and discussed it together. We were also thrilled when the Middle School organized a series of parents meetings to discuss the books meaning and impact, and Palacio, herself, accepted an invitation to come and speak to the students. I entered the Middle School that day to hear the author and I couldn’t put my (one) finger on it, but something about the banner at the entrance made me me pause. It read in large print, “Choose Kind.” I was already very familiar with the slogan. I had seen it when Ms. Palacio had featured my own blog, “Wondering”on her ‘Choose Kind’ site. She had developed it with Random House publishing to be a resource for families who wanted to learn about applying the lessons of the book about a boy with a blatant difference and how he was treated at school.
Now, the night before seeing the movie, I unexpectedly came across an article written by Ariel Henley in Teen Vogue. Like Wonder’s main character, Henley was herself born with a cranial facial difference that forced her to endure numerous surgeries. Henley argues that Auggie is used as a prop to teach those around him about acceptance and compassion, and drives home her view that the mere existence of individuals with facial disfigurements or differences is not inspirational. She added that in her opinion, “[Wonder] is nothing more than a method for encouraging those born without such a disorder or the equivalent to feel better about themselves, a great disservice to everyone in the cranio community.” Later that day, I decided to post Henley’s article on my Don’t Hide It, Flaunt It Facebook page. Instantly, the page lit up with comments, including a woman with a facial difference who echoed Henley’s sentiment. She posted, “My biggest problem was that the author has ZERO connection to the facial difference community but took it upon herself to write about and ultimately profit from the experiences of those like her.” Clearly and understandably, feeling are raw when it comes to having the “outside world” manage a message of what it is like to be different.
And I certainly can relate.
However, after seeing the movie with our kids, some friends and their children, I noted that they not only loved Wonder but were clearly impacted by it. I realized in that moment that unlike Henley and the woman who posted on the DHIFI page, I am unconcerned about having a fictional character like Auggie serve as an inspirational example. I decided to thank the woman on Facebook for sharing her perspective but added my own two cents. I wrote, “These days I’ve evolved to believe that if, just by being ourselves we have the privilege of inspiring people to be their best, that certainly feels…. Ummmm….Wonderful.”
So what was it about the “Choose Kind” banner that bothered me during Palacio’s visit? It was something Ethan taught me. In his own first Kids Flaunt written in 5th grade about his being bullied by kids back when he was 1st grader, Ethan wrote, “I hid behind a tree on the playground, feeling embarrassed about my physical difference. I felt like a mouse in a cat’s paw. I was lost and clueless. They were probably murmuring about how weird I was and how I was a poor little 1st grader with a life of pain set out for me.” And then Ethan describes how Javier, a boy who became his best friend, saw Ethan in distress and came to help. The real point for Ethan was that, what he needed the most in that moment was friendship. And, he was very fortunate to find that in Javi, who wrote his own Kids Flaunt several years ago about being Ethan’s friend.
I don’t really fault Palacio for missing the nuance. In truth, I used to feel a bit resentful too about someone like her claiming the authority to discuss a topic for which she had only peripheral experience. After all, she got the idea for Wonder after a single encounter in an ice-cream shop between her kids and a boy with a cranial facial difference. Yet Palacio nevertheless did what so many good writers can do, she used research and imagination to convey an emotional and impactful story.
The goal of stories like Wonder should be to go beyond teaching kids to be kind to everyone, especially to their peers who are different. The harder work is figuring out how those same students could take the extra step and actually choose friendship. In Wonder, kids like Jack and Summer were willing to ignore the peer pressure and choose to be close to Auggie. To me, that was the least realistic part of the movie. I know from experience that one can’t always count on the real life Javiers to show up when needed. Yet that should be all of our focus, whether we have lived a life (or have children) with a blatant difference or not.
While choosing kindness is a good first step, I believe that inspiring kids to choose friendship, however, is particularly wonder-ful.