Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bully, Kindness and Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Buzz.  Best of.  Mock-Newbery.  Must read.  Every year, 1,000’s of books come out and for a few, we use these words to describe them. Teachers, librarians, and booksellers prominently display these special books in classrooms, libraries and bookstores. Honestly, every year I approach these books with caution because at the end of the school year maybe a couple of students will have read them.  Of course these students would end up reading these books even if they were hidden in the room.  Why? Because these students grow up to be, well, us.  This year Wonder by R.J. Palacio is that book.  Reluctantly I purchased Wonder.  Before I continue I must apologize to Ms. Palacio because if I had known how deeply this book affected me I would have been one of the first to purchase it. 

August Pullman (Auggie) is a 10-year boy with facial deformities who is attending public school for the first time. Auggie is obsessed with Star Wars.  He has loving parents, Nate and Isabel, and a wonderful older sister, Via.  Throughout the book Auggie learns what it is like in the big world.

I attended six different elementary schools.  Yes, I was always the new kid.  I was short and an outsider.  In the spring of 1972 my family moved back to Denver.  I finished 5th and 6th grade at Polton Elementary School.  (At that time Cherry Creek Schools middle school was 7th and 8th grades.)  I don’t remember which day of that first week at Polton when Eric Ritter began the bullying, but I do know that he tormented me until the last day of high school.  (A few years after high school I saw Eric in the mountains.  He didn’t see me, but the moment I saw him my stomach churned the way it did for years.  The upsetting part was that he could still get to me.) He lived on my block.  His house was next to the pool.  I got extra exercise because I would walk a couple of blocks out the way to enter the pool from a different direction.  For some reason only known to, well I don’t know whom; our lockers were in the same block throughout middle school and high school. 

Eric didn’t threaten to take my lunch or beat me up.  He used words to demean, hurt, and humiliate me.  He would knock in to me sending my books flying, or lean against my locker preventing me from getting what I needed for the day.  In high school I got a large backpack and kept every thing with me to avoid having to go down the bank of lockers.  It was difficult to deal with on a daily basis.  What made it worst was that boys I was once friends with became friends with Eric and they would stand by at first and watch.  This would turn into laughing along, and finally ending with them joining in, or tormenting me when he wasn’t around.  Unfortunately, the helplessness I felt is still happening today.  I didn’t feel safe telling anyone what was happening.  Today we still have students that won’t ask for help.  Often it is because the common adult response is
 “Well, just ignore them.”
 “Play somewhere else.”
“Did an adult see it?”

I suffered in silence. Just like endless kids do today.  Last summer was the first time I told a high school friend what Eric had done.  I do tell the story of Eric every year to my students to try to help them see how bullying can happen to anyone and how they can make a difference in someone’s life by their own actions.

I am advocating that every 4th grader to 12th grade be required to read this book.  I wish it was appropriate for every age; but I, truly, believe that third grade and below are too young to understand the book.  Even more so, I think every teacher, administrator, politician, journalist, and parent read this book.  As I wrote earlier I reluctantly read some of the buzz books.  One reason is that even though we, as educators, enjoy the book students have trouble relating to the characters.  What makes this book powerful is that the characters are universal.  The reader can relate to Auggie because their difference at one point made them an outsider.

At the beginning of the book one of Auggie’s teacher, Mr. Browne, writes on the board:

“When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

Ms. Palcacio subtly, and luckily not so subtly writes about kindness throughout this book.  “If every single 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.”  As eductators human beings if we follow these words what a difference we can make.  Children will see that it get better. (This link is to the It Gets Better Project.)

PS.  I am trying to add the gadget, picture link to Choose Kind; but I am doing it wrong.  Help!


Carol said...

Oh, Kyle, this is sooo sad. I am so sorry…

And I think I agree with everything you said about WONDER! An amazing book!

Ali B said...

This book was incredible. So good that I convinced (it wasn't hard) to get my book club to read and discuss it. Tonight's the night. I can't wait.

And Kyle, I am sorry that bullying cast a shadow on your youth, and that that shadow still lingers today. I feel so fortunate to have my kids at a school where bullying is not tolerated and dealt with swiftly and courageously. No one should have to suffer at the hands of a bully.