“If every person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary - the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.”
― R.J. Palacio, author of Wonder
I knew I would cry.
I’ve been reading summaries of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder since it’s release in 2012. Wonder is the story of Auggie Pullman, a fifth-grade boy with Treacher Collins Syndrome, a condition that can cause extreme facial deformity. His peers cope with a range of reactions to his unusual appearance, and upsetting situations are laced throughout interwoven stories of the characters. Ultimately, goodness wins.
When my son was in the fifth-grade, teachers at Holy Rosary School used Wonder for a book study and character-education series. He has anxiously been awaiting the release of the movie; we went to see it the first day it came out.
I knew I would cry. I didn’t know it would start in the first five minutes. And I certainly wasn’t prepared for the scene that rocked me the most. (Warning - spoilers ahead.)
Auggie had been homeschooled until the fifth grade, when his parents decided to enroll him in Beecher Prep, a private school, for middle school. As Auggie enters his homeroom on the first day, I noticed something about his appearance that sparked an immediate reaction.
He had a rat-tail.
In the movie, they referred to it as a Padawan braid, but to me, it was a rat-tail: a long, tail-like element of hair growing downward from the back of the head, often braided. I felt anxious at the sight, worried immediately about what would happen.
And the involuntary thought of, “Why would his parents allow that? They’re going to make fun of him!”
And I was right. By the end of the first week of school, Auggie had cut off his braid after being teased mercilessly. And the scene of him cutting his hair in frustration rocked me to my core.
Because I know well how cruel humans can be to one another. I have been, as most of us have, on both sides of cruel comments. I have witnessed time and time again how the smallest differences can be used as fuel for teasing: the child who sings loudly at mass, the student wearing shoes that are not deemed cool enough by others or the one who is brave enough to wear a hairstyle different than the majority.
After the movie was over, my son and I spent some time telling our favorite parts to one another. It was too raw of an experience to get into much deeper of a conversation; I could still feel my emotions catching in my throat. But the next day, I gathered the courage to have the more difficult talk - the one where we reflect on our own actions and admit our own failings.
The scene with the rat-tail stuck to me like glue. Years of trying to navigate the difficult waters of being popular while staying under the radar came rushing back. Growing up in an environment that being well-liked does not always equate with being kind. This self-protective mechanism was so deeply ingrained that the first thing I saw in this scene was the potential for social humiliation.
This boy should not have to change the one piece of his appearance he can control because others think it unfashionable. His parents should encourage him to find joy. Our children should be kind enough to accept one another’s differences.
But we’re not there yet.