October 31, 1977
I was thrilled! My favorite holiday had finally arrived. That morning, as my elementary school class and I lined up for our school’s annual Halloween parade, my closest friends and I were beyond giddy. However, little did they know that my love for the holiday had nothing to do with scoring candy.
The year before had been particularly great. Since we had been living in Islamabad, it wasn’t like there were costume shops available. Instead, my Mom had loaned me her beautiful white nightgown. Supplemented with aluminum foil for wings, I was convinced I looked exactly like an angel. But most importantly, the arm length of the lingerie was too long for my tiny arms, ensuring that my one-fingered hands were mainly hidden. In a word, the costume was perfect.
Now in third grade, I chose to become Raggedy Ann, after one of my favorite dolls. I adored the sensation of having my face painted with white make-up, allowing me to pretend that I looked entirely different than usual. Maybe, just maybe, if someone didn’t recognize me, they wouldn’t automatically focus on my hands. As a backup, the costume included an apron which would be useful for hiding my hands, if needed.
There was something about Halloween that that just did it for me. I think it was not only having the chance to pretend for a day that I didn’t look like I really did, but also the fact that on that day everyone looked different.
“Meg, don’t look now but that woman is looking really uncomfortable.” It was my friend Johanna, and we were with our kids at the local ice cream parlor. Ethan was talking to her son, his close friend, Javier, and I had just grabbed the bag filled with our desserts. We were taking them home to eat with our families. The woman was in line just ahead of us, and had been holding her daughter’s hand. As soon as she noticed my deformed hands and then Ethan’s, she clearly was trying to hurry up the ice cream parlor employee and simultaneously to divert her daughter’s attention away from Ethan and me. Although Ethan and Javier were consumed with their own conversation, Johanna winked at me, and we began to giggle, mostly at the absurdity of it all. Once again, another parent that couldn’t stand the thought of being embarrassed by a potential outburst by their own child at the sight of something (er, someone) they had never encountered. As soon as the woman paid at the counter, she grabbed her daughter’s hand, ignoring her plea, “Mommy! Why can’t we eat here like you promised?”
When it was time to leave, I walked toward my car and standing right next to it was the woman, staring at my fender. I looked around and quickly noticed her daughter was seated in the car already enjoying her ice cream. The mother turned to me in dismay. “Oh my gosh! I am so sorry! I don’t know what came over me but somehow I was distracted and just ran into your car here in the parking lot!” As we exchanged information for insurance purposes, I looked over at the woman, and although not another word was spoken, it didn’t matter. I already knew what came over her. It was fear—not of us per se, but of not knowing exactly how to successfully parent the concept of difference.
This past week I began to prepare myself to attend an important event at Ethan’s Middle School. RJ (Raquel Jaramillo) Palacio, the phenomenal author who wrote, “Wonder,” a story about a fictional 5th grader born with a severe facial deformity, was coming to speak. In anticipation, I attended a local parent book discussion about Wonder. “How do you think you might feel if your son or daughter was the subject of fear, stares or ridicule?” The question came from the book group leader, and I was sitting along with the rest of the parents prepared to discuss the book that was a mandatory summer read for all students at the school. I looked around and immediately felt a mixture of emotions. Firstly, I laughed to myself because the question was anything but a hypothetical for our family. However, after hearing other parents share their thoughts, I began once-again to appreciate the vantage point of others. They were particularly shocked over the “Halloween Scene” and what it was like for Auggie (the 5th grader) to be able to wear a mask and hide his difference thereby letting him accidentally hear what others thought of him. The parents’ emotional reactions reminded me of how foreign my daily experience is for most people.
But in addition to attending the parent book discussion, I decided to Google more about what prompted Ms. Palacio to write the book. What I learned was that she got the idea for Wonder when she was at an ice cream shop five years ago in Brooklyn with her two sons. There, she noticed a young girl with facial differences eating with her mother and sister. Palacio admitted to the fact that she immediately worried that her own children might blurt out an insensitive comment and make the other family uncomfortable. She opted to rush her children out of the shop causing her youngest to cry out and her oldest to drop a tray of milkshakes. According to Palacio, she agonized over the chaotic scene for the rest of the day. “It was just one of those terrible moments when my kids didn’t react the way that I would’ve wanted them to react,” she told NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “In order to spare this little girl’s feelings, I ended up just kind of running away from the scene.”
When I read this story, I was struck by the coincidence and relevance to my own life. I had even explored the topic in an article of mine that was published in Parents magazine in December 2011 entitled, “It’s Okay to Stare.” http://www.parents.com/kids/responsibility/manners/people-with-differences There, I advised that the best thing a parent can do when their child comes across someone different is to not whisk them away but rather let them embarrass you. Of course, the finger pointing and loud outbursts will make any parent cringe (myself included), and the desire to grab your child and run as fast as you can in the other direction is almost impossible to ignore. However, if you stay and allow curiosity to govern, those of us that look different have a chance to respond naturally and even become a ‘someone’ instead of a ‘something.’
Yet, in real life, things are seldom handled so neatly. Whenever my sons and I experience a parent’s attempt to distract their children from noticing us, I focus on trying to preserve my own kids’ dignity. However, what caught my attention was the impact of that single experience on Ms. Palacio. She not only agonized over it, she even replayed it over and over in her mind. That very night she began to write the story about Auggie.
Among other noteworthy awards, Wonder has been #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for almost a year. Wonder’s impact is undeniable, and in addition to being overjoyed by its success, what intrigues me more than anything is what caused RJ Palacio to write it in the first place. Before I heard her story, I presumed she was a parent like me, whose life had been directly touched by difference. I was dead wrong. It never occurred to me how an encounter with someone different might have actually had a much more significant and lingering impact. Admittedly, every time I have seen a parent whisk their child away from us, the only lasting thought I had was the presumption that the other parent felt relieved that an outburst was avoided. I simply assumed that despite the fact that this is our life story, this experience was most likely the first and only chapter in their book.
A special thank you to RJ Palacio for not only helping provide countless readers insight into what it is like to be different, but also for allowing me to no longer wonder, and instead appreciate, that even when another parent pulls their child away from me and my family, that is not necessarily the end of the story.
Ethan and I loved RJ Palacio’s presentation, and I was personally tickled to learn that aside from our shared love of reading and writing, like me she played trombone growing up. During the talk, Ms. Palacio described an email she received in response to her book, from a parent of a child with a cranial facial disfigurement. Apparently, after reading Wonder, on Halloween last year the boy decided to not wear a mask with his costume for the first time in his life. To me, there was something both ironic and thrilling about this story. Somehow as every other child purposefully tried to disguise their appearance that night, the brave boy finally learned how to flaunt his.