In August of 2012, I was preparing for my next round of teaching 5th graders. Hoping for a strong start, I picked up the hottest new book on the intermediate grade market: Wonder by R J. Palacio.
It was all the rage, Palacio’s debut novel about a boy entering middle school after being homeschooled his whole life. The situation is complicated by the fact that he was born with a condition called mandibulofacial dysostosis. More commonly known as Treacher Collins Syndrome, “the condition affects the development of bones and other facial tissues. How prevalent the signs and symptoms of this disorder are can vary greatly. In some children the condition is almost unnoticeable, but in others, … the symptoms are severe. Hallmarks of this syndrome are underdeveloped cheek bones, a small jaw and chin, a cleft palate, and eyes that slant downward.” (For more information, click here.)
The boy’s name is August Pullman.
There are many memorable and remarkable moments in his story. August – or Auggie – has an indomitable spirit that refuses to give up under the most difficult circumstances, given the value placed on appearance by our culture. As if we all had anything to do with how our faces or bodies were formed. As if we would choose to be different.
Yes, we tell our children and ourselves that different really means unique and something to be celebrated. We hold them tight when bullies lash out about hair that’s too curly or glasses too thick or basketball skills too weak. We encourage them to pursue their passion for music or reading or science, while their classmates prefer shopping and parties, skinny jeans and gossip.
But the tendency to be critical doesn’t really disappear as we grow older – we just get better at hiding it or disguising it. We whisper in the ladies room, we text snarky little photos of the “not-quite-model-material” moms at the ice cream shop, we envy instead of encourage and, the most shameful of all, we “share concerns” under the guise of Bible study prayer time.
So when I read about little Auggie, a sweet natured boy regular in almost every way, just hoping to make friends and make it through middle school, I was reluctant to reflect because I know who I was in middle school – and it wasn’t always very pretty.
In so many ways, I was just like Auggie, regular in almost every way, just hoping to make friends and make it through middle school. I was never in the popular group, or even the next group down in the natural pecking order of kids. I didn’t have a wide circle of friends, but those that I had were mostly nice, mostly loyal, mostly just regular in almost every way.
But there was always that girl or boy, the one who came to school a little less polished than the rest of us, wearing older and more ragged clothes, carrying bagged lunches of thin bologna sandwiches and three off-brand Oreos. Almost always the new kid, the one no one knew and who often moved away unnoticed before the end of the year. Always one that was just a little bit more weird or socially awkward, giving my superiority a boost. One that became a victim of the jagged end of my stick at times, even if only in a smug look or cruel comment, poorly shielded behind my hand.
So as I read about Auggie, originally to get back into the heads of intermediate grade kids as I prepared for a new year, I felt that particular August would be more about my attitude and behavior than that of my new batch of students.
Toward the end of the book, Daisy, the family dog, died. I tried not to cry so I could continue to read. And that response bubbled up again today when I reread the chapter entitled Daisy’s Toys. I love stories that make me feel that tight and raw feeling in my throat, wanting to hug the characters, anxious about the rest of the tale.
But the next chapter Heaven is where it got even more real for me. Auggie asks to sleep in his mom and dad’s bed, so sad and lonely, hoping that his beloved pet is now with his beloved Gran. He doesn’t fall asleep right away but asks his mom, “Do people look the same when they get to heaven?”
Well, I don’t know how I would have answered that question, but his mom is a genius…
“I don’t know, sweetie.” She sounded tired. “they just feel it. You don’t need your eyes to love, right? You just feel it inside you. That’s how it is in heaven. It’s just love, and no one forgets who they love.”Wonder, p. 227
Although we don’t and probably never will have the scoop on what heaven is like from this side, you’d be hard pressed to find an argument to that answer.
After she kissed him again, Auggie could hear the rhythmic breath of both sleeping parents. He wondered if Daisy was sleeping in heaven. Was she dreaming about him? And then…
I wondered how it would feel to be in heaven someday and not have my face matter anymore. Just like it never, ever mattered to Daisy.p. 227
Oh, good golly, Miss Molly. I cannot get that out of my head now. I should have remembered it from my first reading of Wonder that long ago August. And I should have recognized that faces don’t matter waaaaay earlier in my life – like forever ago.
I don’t like to should on myself, but honestly, there are times when I need the personal 2-by-4 upside the head. And, my lovelies, you are welcome to join me.
I get it. There will always be bullies, people who are just mean and cannot feel better unless someone else feels worse, as if there is a very limited amount of success possible in the world and it must be both guarded and distributed by the powerful and influential. I believe telling the truth about them when asked and avoiding them whenever possible is both wise and necessary.
But most of the time, unprovoked snark and snickers and gossip and belittling are completely unjustified. We have no excuse for being anything but kind.
It’s August again. I have some reading – and rereading – to do, some about writing, some about Jesus, some about growing up, being a good human, and doing my very best.
But this August is different than any I’ve ever lived through. We face monumental issues of worldwide health, distrust, and ill-placed power. Every single group I can think of from coffee-klatches to church congregations to political parties find ways to disagree about almost everything, from the definition of pro-life to how much money is enough – or who should get what and when. Social media platforms have long lost their power to persuade and, instead, have become anonymous places to either agree that everybody else is stupid or to lash out in stupidity.
What has not changed, though, is that Kindness Matters. And in the middle of each argument, I hope we can remember the words of Auggie’s English teacher, Mr. Browne, “a really tall man with a yellow beard.” He kept a list of precepts, defined in his class as rules about really important things!
Mr. Browne asked his students to identify different categories that needed rules, and they came up with school and homework, families, the environment … and sharks (?) (Remember, this is middle school.)
But the one category he kept looking for was WHO WE ARE…
Us, right? What kind of people are we? What kind of person are you? Isn’t that the most important thing of all? Isn’t that the kind of question we should be asking ourselves all the time? “What kind of person am I?”p. 47
Mr. Browne proceeded to write out his September Precept in big letters across the chalkboard:
WHEN GIVEN THE CHOICE BETWEEN BEING RIGHT OR BEING KIND, CHOOSE KIND.
Despite the fact that I’m being asked to choose sides, contribute to this candidate or that one, wear a mask or claim HOAX, determine which lives need to matter and what does that mean anyway (and isn’t matter just the minimum?) – the list goes on and on, and I am beaten down by sides and opinions…
Despite all of that, this August, Mr. Browne’s words are speaking with a voice so much louder than the one I heard that other August, seemingly a lifetime ago.
This is a “Finish the Sentence Friday” prompted by Once in August… and you can join in here!