It's okay, I know I'm weird-looking, take a look, I don't bite. Hey, the truth is, if a wookie started going to school all of a sudden, I'd be curious, I'd probably stare a bit!
When he walked into the room, I couldn't help myself. I stared, just for a moment. He looked so different from all the other kids in the auditorium. Then, a few teen girls sitting behind me started whispering to each other. "Oh My God... Look at him!" One of them said.
We were at a youth summit after 4,000 students from San Mateo California had seen the film Bully. The summit was an opportunity to talk about people's reactions to the film and discuss what students, teachers, parents and administrators might do to make San Mateo a safer place for all children. My company, Reach And Teach, through a great idea by a member of our team, Drew Durham, had helped pay for transportation for 100 of those students to see the film. (I had not seen the film yet but thought it would be worthwhile to be at the summit to hear how students and teachers responded.)
Just before I had left the shop to go to the summit Drew Durham had handed me a book and said that when I had the chance I absolutely had to read it. I glanced at the cover (the one on the left), put the book down on my desk and headed to the car. As is usual for me, I got to the summit a half hour early so I had plenty of time to hang around and take in what was happening.
The teen whom I had noticed coming into the room was someone that I thought would be an instant magnet for bullying. As a social justice advocate who works for equality for all people, and who abhors judging people by their appearance, I felt bad that my reaction had been to immediately make assumptions about him. I was also making assumptions about the girls behind me, thinking they were being mean and disrespectful, as they continued to whisper about him. But then... one of them said. "I can't believe we're going to actually get to meet Alex." Another said "He's soooooo cute!" And the third said "I just wish I could give him a hug."
OK, something about my assumptions was way off (which life continues to remind me is usually the case when it comes to assumptions)!
The boy turned out to be Alex Libby, who had been the focus of much of the film Bully. Alex had gone through a long ordeal of bullying at his school, torment and violence that had been vividly captured in the film. Alex was to be one of the speakers at the summit. He noticed the group of teens staring at him and gave them an awkward little wave. Their response was what I would have expected if Justin Bieber had blown them a kiss. Alex came over and introduced himself and turned on the charm. He was sweet, funny, endearingly awkward, and quite the flirt.
This was a great reminder NOT to judge any "book by its cover."
Alex took questions from the crowd during the summit and his responses were both inspiring and heartbreaking. As with many victims of what can only be described as torture, Alex shared that eventually he became numb to it all, especially the physical violence. What was most heartbreaking was the way so many adults who could have stepped in and made a difference, didn't. What was most inspiring was his ability to forgive, and with a move to a new school, Alex has started a whole new and wonderful life. Even more inspiring was hearing the commitment from children and adults in the room who brainstormed concrete ways they would work to make sure that the kind of torture Alex endured would be prevented in their schools.
As amazing as the summit turned out to be, it was something the organizers handed out at the end that I'm going to share in this article. The school district wants every middle schooler in San Mateo to read Wonder, a book by R.J. Palacio. Funny! That's the same book that Drew Durham handed me as I left the shop to go to the summit. Coincidence?
Here's an excerpt.
It's okay, I know I'm weird-looking, take a look, I don't bite. Hey, the truth is, if a wookie started going to school all of a sudden, I'd be curious, I'd probably stare a bit! And if I was walking with Jack or Summer, I'd probably whisper to them: Hey, there's the wookie. And if the wookie caught me saying that, he'd know I wasn't trying to be mean. I was just pointing out the fact that he's a wookie.
That's the voice of August (Augie) Pullman, the main character in the book, who was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school-until now. He's about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you've ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Augie's just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, despite appearances?
Masterfully crafted and impossible to put down, this book should be required reading for anyone over the age of ten. Augie, like Alex Libby, is an amazing person with fascinating interests, incredible courage, a wickede sense of humor, loving compassion for others, a willingness to forgive other people's weaknesses and bad behavior, and he can be a lot of fun to be around if you take the time to get past the surface. Augie, though, unlike Alex, has such severe deformities that it takes a lot more work to get past his surface. The story takes you all the way through his first full year at school. One minute you'll be laughing out loud about something that happens and the next minute you'll be crying. A minute later you'll be incredibly angry. The author takes you on a roller coaster of emotions without being heavy handed.
Fans of The Neverending Story know that a good book can make you feel like you are the main character. As Augie, you fearfully wonder if anyone will let you sit near them in the lunchroom. You feel betrayed when your best friend says something terrible about you behind your back. You fret that your own sister doesn't want you to come to her school play because she's tired of the spotlight always being on you. Within just a few paragraphs you ARE Augie.
Then, R.J. Palacio shakes things up. Suddenly you start to experience being other people in Augie's life: his best friend, his sister, her friend, six other characters in all. This is critically important. Told differently this story could have made you feel very sorry for Augie and furious at the other characters, but you might not see yourself in the circle of people around him. Without getting into the other characters' skin and seeing things through THEIR eyes you might unwittingly continue be part of the problem of bullying instead of being part of the solution. With Wonder, you get to see how one little thing that you do can cause unbelievable pain, or how another tiny simple thing can bring great joy.
That was also a message clearly learned by the people who had seen Bully. Every single person in the room had either been bullied or had witnessed another person being bullied. Some admitted to having engaged in bullying against others. Over half, though, despite being witnesses to bullying, had never taken action to stop someone from bullying. Virtually everyone in the room pledged to become "upstanders instead of bystanders."
Wonder brings that message home more clearly than any other novel I have read about bullying. One criticism I've seen about the book (spoiler alert) is that it has a happy ending. We know that many bullying stories end in tragedy. One of my greatest coming out gripes was that just about every book about growing up gay ended with the gay person getting beaten up, murdered, or committing suicide. Yes, that can and does happen, but it doesn't have to. My hope is that someone who reads this book will realize that one simple act of kindness, one moment of being a little extra mindful, simply looking at someone long enough to catch their eye and then smiling (which prevented one contemplated suicide that I know of) or giving someone an awkward little wave, or letting an adult know that a child is in terrible pain, could mean the difference between life and death.
Augie's fictional story has a happy ending. Alex Libby is really happy with his life now that he has moved to a new home and new school and has been warmly accepted by the people in his new town. Any child can make the difference between happy endings and heartbreaks. Wonder empowers children to make that difference. Simply taking a seat in the lunchroom next to another kid who looks all alone can be a huge gift (and you may find that your next year of lunches are much more fun than they would have been at some other table). We each have the power to transform someone else's world, and at the same time, our own. Sometimes that transformation starts when someone hands you a book and says "you've got to read this."
Wonder is among the best books I've ever read and I hope that it becomes even more widely read by children than the Harry Potter series. Real children can't ride a broomstick and win the Tri-Wizard Cup, but they can do amazing magic to keep other children safe and happy.
Thank you R.J. Palacio for introducing us to Augie. And thank you Alex Libby for being Alex Libby! Now let's all get out there and be upstanders for people like Augie and Alex. You might just find yourself with some of the kindest, funniest, sweetest, smartest, very best friends you could possibly find. Just be careful around Alex if you're a teenage girl - especially if he offers to do some of his gangsta rap for you!