Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On Bullying. On Wonder. On the Narrow Road. And on Ovations of the Standing Kind.

On Bullying.  On Wonder.  On the Narrow Road. And on Ovations of the Standing Kind.

I opened his backpack only to pull out 4 individually foil wrapped chocolate chip cookies, stale and crumbled.  “Why?” 

“I thought I ate those.”
 “Well, clearly Joe, you didn’t.  Why?” 
 “Please just tell me.” 
“I thought I ate them.” 
“The truth!” 
Silence.  Then.  “Someone made fun of me for bringing in a cookie.  He said it was weird.”

My oldest son.  Bright, funny, fine in all respects has been bullied since the start of the school year.  Something he never even talked about, just swallowing the sadness of isolation and uncertainty until it started showing up in likely places: stomach pain that wouldn’t go away, sloppy errors that have cost him in his favorite subjects, staring off into space, books left untouched. 

I consider myself a vigilant parent, but I didn’t see the signs because I wasn’t looking for them.  I saw them clearly in his younger brother, and Sam also will tell me when something is bothering him.  But Joe?  He’s getting older.  The lines that divide fitting in and not, appearing cool and not being are becoming cloudy and unclear. 

Small for his age with a smile that can take on the world, he has always made friends easily.  Not altogether that strong, but eager to participate, he’s always picked for games outside.  But the factions that I thought would come later, and to be very honest, I believed would not affect his gender this early, have come and Joe has found himself on the outside of the 4th grade in crowd.

Joe is my introduction to motherhood.  And it isn’t easy.  Missing my own mother, used to being entirely on my own, finding myself responsible for a child who would never sleep, and couldn’t nap unless he was held, was an exercise in daily, relentless torture.  Some days we’d have a staring contest, me looking into eyes that resembled my own, eyelashes that WERE mine once, and wondering if we’d ever be on the same side.

That day came.  And fast, and I’ve found him to be exactly like me, but the souped-up version.  The better one, the more compassionate, the more
"Just lean on me Mommy, when it hurts."
forgiving, the smarter.  Every day he amazes me with his mind, his insight and his uncanny ability to read people with a precision that he doesn’t just save for books.

This child.  Extraordinary.  This child has been isolated.  Told he’s weird.  Told he’s “too pretty.”  Told he’s not wanted.  His difference has struck constantly, as swift and painful as any weapon in the wrong hands…. 

 “They say I must be one of the wonders of God’s own creation.  
And as far as they see they can offer no explanation.”  
Natalie Merchant, "Wonder," Tigerlily

When I heard “Wonder” for the first time off of Natalie Merchant’s 1995 album, I loved it.  Because it gave voice to something not often spoken, and that was of an exceptional child who could manage and better, inspire and transcend any limitations given.  R.J. Palacio was inspired by the song too, and moreover an encounter with just such a child, outside an ice cream shop in NYC.  An episode that left her shaken due to her own visible and unkind reaction to a child with Treacher Collins syndrome and how she was ever, ever going to be able to address it and teach her sons how to as well.  (In fact, her chapter called “Carvel” in the book narrated by Jack Will is an almost verbatim rendition of that real life scene that planted the seed for Wonder, the
novel.)  It was a sum of experience and song, I guess that gave rise to what I think should be required reading for every parent and child and others in this family human.

The novel is supposed to be about August Pullman, who enters the 5th grade as a regular middle school student.  Until this time he’s been homeschooled; while Palacio doesn’t make it clear whether or not Auggie has TC, she seems to allude to the fact that his condition is even more rare, a combination of TC and something else that cause his abnormalities to be extreme.  But that’s what Auggie’s got on the outside.  On the inside he has a devoted older sister Olivia “Via,” parents who’ve remained together and love him to distraction.  ….and new friends at this hive of absolutely shocking displays of bullying, fitting in and puberty called Middle School.  

You can imagine the story.  You can imagine the backlash.  My heart hurt just to consider it.  And your own flashbacks of instances when you were left wanting come back in a ferocity of needing the injustices to come to be righted immediately.  Because it’s clear that he’ll be bullied.  And you hope the young children chosen by the administrator, Mr. Tushman, will ease August’s way through.  And for me, well, I would hope that my child, if placed in that circumstance, would be one of them. 

My son Joe is 9 and a voracious reader.  We are kin in more ways than one.  So this summer before he started 4th grade, I started him on WonderBecause we talk often about the moments when you can choose what is right instead of what is easy.  And this book amplifies just those choices.  For Summer Dawson, a pretty and popular girl, it is negotiating that gap between childhood and girlhood with unease.  She simply refuses to go blindly into conformity.  She’s chosen to remain true to herself, which means sitting with a kid who’s different just because she likes him.  And still believing in unicorns, and escaping a popular kid Halloween
party because she’s confronted with abandoning Auggie as a friend, and as a reward, to have full entry into the popular clique of girls as well as a chance to be Auggie's tormentor, Julian Alban’s, girlfriend.  Her decision shocked me, because she asks to use the bathroom, calls her mom and quietly slips out into the night, watching the Halloween parade and noting, sadly, that among the “Skeletons. Pirates. Princesses. Vampires. Superheroes” there is not a single unicorn.  Her courage doesn’t seem to shake her; it’s a deep sense of knowing herself, knowing what she is ready for and not being moved a minute earlier than she needs to be. 

Miranda, Via’s former best friend opts into the in-crowd just as Via is standing on her own.  But what she finds there among the bright shining stars is vast space and emptiness.  No comfort.  No love.  So she winds her way back like an errant slack yo-yo to the Pullmans.  After severing your friendship, finding there a hopeful soft spot on which to land takes not a small part of grit and none of it graceful and yet, Miranda navigates between the two.

 For Via.  So long in the shadow of a sibling who needs so much.  A crusader and mouthpiece for her family.  But also a teenage girl.  She never had to make a choice, it was made for her.  And the daily amount of audacity needed to brave the world not of her choosing, where nothing is quite that easy and everything requires patience and compassion, that is something else altogether. 

 And Jack Will a popular, good-looking boy, it is a struggle to fit his new feelings of genuine friendship with August over his discomfort in aligning himself with the school “freak.”  He’ll put himself in direct opposition to Julian, the wealthy, popular child who runs a pretty tight crew.  And his innate understanding that in choosing August over Julian meant that he wasn’t going to be popular.  But he didn’t know that the “entire grade would be turned against” him for doing it.  As he says, “It just feels so weird to not have people talking to you, pretending you don’t even exist.” 

The cast is set against a progressive private school
where an English teacher, Mr. Browne introduces everyone to his precepts, which are “Rules about really important things.”  And more, his one for back-to-school, for September:  

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

So that’s what we see.  The characters trying to navigate what it means to not be right and be kind and realizing that most often, they coincide.  Wonder strikes a deep blue soul chord because of this.  Because we, as readers, as people, as family, know this is all true.  I think it is amazing that Jack can take the ostracism.  More so that Summer marches to her own unicorn beat without thought of the perception of others.  That Miranda finds herself back into the fold that is unpopular but better for her soul.  That Via finds balance.  But I never thought truth would play out of the fiction.  And I never thought that my bright, beautiful, engaging and compassionate boy would be on the receiving end of unkind.  And I am broken for it.

It started innocuously enough, at one of the two events that make up a young child’s entire social component of school: lunch (recess being the other).  Table seating is assigned and Joe started hearing jokes and stories that he still refuses to repeat.  He wouldn’t join in the mocking of teachers, students and the curses that other children threw into the air like confetti.  He didn’t want to engage in it, so he remained silent, then when pushed, "I don't think that's right."  Condemning the action without hurting another.  And that was enough to get him blackballed, marked from the outset.

Before too long, even though he would go up to the ringleader, my own son’s “Julian,” and say, “hi,” he heard the boy say to others, “Did you hear anything?  I didn’t hear anything?”  Just like what happens to Jack Will, the campaign of slow freeze had begun. 

We’ve talked about this, constantly.  I want my children to be the ones to stand up for the lonely.  Befriend those who don’t have anyone.  Sit at the lunch table with the new kid. 

Stand on the side of what is “right” rather than “what is easy.”  Because I remember how much I would have longed for it as the teasing for me increased in elementary and then the horrors of middle school boys whose collective torment is still enough for a quick heart stop nightmare of remembrance.  I wish I’d had the courage to do it later, but suffering under my own cloud of difference I didn’t want anything else marking me as other, even if it meant standing with someone else who was.  But I suffered, and I wanted to be sure that my children wouldn’t instigate or participate in the othering, choosing instead to be better.  Take a higher road, consider the person rather than the cool.

So Joe, obedient and cognizant, did.  Just like Jack.  But it was a failure because I didn’t prepare him.  I didn’t prepare him, and didn’t consider, the loneliness that accompanies the right side.

And I am sorry for that.  So sorry Joe.  Because being right isn’t like the movies or in books.  It can be very, very, very lonely. 

It’s easier to go with the crowd.  To say that you don’t like someone, or say nothing at all while someone else spews venom at another.  It is the complicity in hatred that causes all the hurt.  And it hurts.  It hurts to know it and it hurts to do nothing about it.  And it hurts just as much to do the right thing for it.  It will require courage, tremendous courage to stand in the face of what you know will hurt you and say, “no.” 

It will require even more courage to try again after being told no in return.  That’s the more difficult, the narrow, the harder path.  It’s what you’ve been taught.  It’s what we believe.  Our family follows the instruction of a God whose son walked that same
road and walks it with you today.  Many stones in the path and a lot of maddening crowd all around.  And still it’s the path that I am asking you to choose.  Despite the pain I know you will face.  I see more of God’s sacrifice now.  Because being on the side of right means asking you to endure pain.  And that is not anything I would knowingly wish for you.

When your life is spent with a maximum height of 5’, your perspective necessarily shifts that way, and a school’s concrete walls can seem like insurmountable barriers erected for the sole purpose of loneliness.  Left alone in the lunchroom, ignored at his table, not invited to play at recess, Joe looked around to eliminate anything else that would mark him.  And he never told.  Not once.  Bright and quiet, he retreated to a shy spot.  His teacher hasn’t had long enough to get to know the Joe BEFORE.  He just is not equipped with the language of exclusion.  It’s a country that no one wants to be in.

So I told his homeroom teacher, and she has taken decisive and quick action.  Because she gets it.  And because she’s compassionate and kind and amazing and made sense of my stumbly words.  We made a plan.  She changed his lunch table in front of me.  She understood just what this is.  I asked his math and science teachers to allow him to sit with friends until the acute crisis had passed.  While their sluggish response, for whatever reason only known to them, has lagged longer than I would have liked, Joe has squared his small shoulders and told me that Friday was a “better day.”  We talked and talked and talked about anything but that this weekend allowing his personality to shake itself off on the shores of what is familiar. 

But this morning, I pulled out those cookies.  And I realized how deep and dark this place is for him.   How treacherous the terrain is for a child once
difference is realized and utilized against him.  How disappointed I am that children this young are using newly found and formed language to belittle and repel.  How saddened I am that parental neglect finds itself exactly in the formation of character because that’s how we are judged.  How lonely the isle of right is.  How much I wish other children at his table would land there too.

I could have told him to retreat.  Allowed him to stay in front of a computer or another flashing screen to lose himself in virtual reality.  But that’s not life; that is not reality.    Life is a gift meant to be lived.  Virtual simulation holds no candle to it.  And that’s what God wants for Joe.  And for all the kids in his class. 
"It's a beautiful evening when you can be
sitting on a stone step and
looking up into the night sky." --Joe, a very wise 9.
And living life means standing in the face of it: the brutality and the beauty of it.  It means engaging more with other children, no matter how scary, rather than less.  It means ripping off the shielding bandage so the sun and light and air can begin to heal the wound.  Those scars are going to fade over time.  It doesn’t matter that you know that I wish they had never been made.

The fact is that I cannot spare him what is to come.  I can meet, talk and plead for understanding.  But I cannot take away the children who choose to place my son on the outside of the circle.  He will see it again, and again and again.  This is the first of many moments where he will have to find words, and use them to rent his way and stay his ground and fight for his right to be there.  “Tell them,” I say, “tell them that you love cookies and it’s completely fine to bring them.”  He looks at me.  “Offer to bring them in one too.”  But Joe is cautious.  “I’ll try the first one,” he says uncertainly. 

At the end of Wonder, August is given an award for outstanding student. He finds himself called to the podium by the awesome Mr. Tushman who quotes the American social reformer and abolitionist, Henry Ward Beecher, “Greatness lies not in being strong but in the right using of strength….  He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.”  August deserves the
award because of his quiet strength has carried the most hearts.  But I don’t think it’s actually true and neither does August.  “To me, though, I’m just me.  An ordinary kid,” he says, “But hey, if they want to give me a medal for being me, that’s okay.  I’ll take it.”

Because I think the medal isn’t for August, the standing ovation seems to be for him but it isn’t.  It’s for all of them.  For Jack and for Summer.  For Via and Miranda.  For the kids who chose to be right when it isn’t easy.  An ovation for living your life despite what may be hard and going through with it anyway.  For having the confidence to push through the dark corridor and to the other side.  Quiet acts of bravery that are amplified in childhood and set a luminous stage for growth when the choices become more difficult and fraught with consequences unforeseen.
“Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once
 in their life because we all overcometh the world.”  --August Pullman

 The novel closes with the children’s precepts and the last one is Auggie’s, “Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their life because we all overcometh the world.”  Joe is still in Jack’s chapter when he was mean at Halloween, but I am hoping he makes it to this part soon.  When I got up last Friday after a knackering day of conferences and plans and worries and emails and an equally exhausting evening of reliving a greatest hits album of school rejection, I saw that my morning birds were still soundly sleeping.  I turned on the light and curled up next to Joe, tracing his nose, and kissing his cheek, singing his name off key.  “Time to get up.  Are you awake yet?”  He nods and smiles.  Hugs and even a laugh.  Lately, he’s clung to me in the morning.  Burying his head in my side of a fuzzy blue robe that’s certainly seen better days and breathing me in the same way I used to breathe my own mother.  Her very smell would calm me and that fragrance memory is barely there anymore; it’s a heavy loss.  So I understand it.  Some smells of love and security are strong and unique and unknown.  I am that for him.  Maybe a day will come when he will not need this.  But I am glad it is not today.

“Will you wake me up every day just like that Mommy?”

Yes, Joe I will.  Because you have to know, you just have to know in your marrow that every time I see you, hold you to me, hear you speak there is a resounding chorus.  I hear it over, and over and over again because you Joe, you, are my standing ovation.  You are my wonder. 



Brittany Graham said...

This has completely broken my heart. Poor Joe. I thought ALL children were weird? Since when do they judge each other's weirdness and get to say that they themselves are not weird, as they make their way into the big world we live in- experiencing challenges, awkward moments and the utter inability to avoid mistakes, errors and brokeness that makes us who we are? As adults I guess we have it rather easy. We KNOW we're weird in our individual ways but we know we'll be judged either way and we're somehow okay with that. Bringing in cookies was enough to make the entire class jealous when I was in elementary school! However, try not to fret beautiful lady. I'm sure that Joe will somehow find a way to fit in (and I'm almost certain you'll be there to help). In fact, offering to bring some in to the whole class seems quite brilliant to me (: Good luck on this journey and please keep us posted.


Beautifully written as always

Karen said...

Love this!

sara said...

Thanks for your kind comments! I don't necessarily agree though--this is about a larger social problem of character formation and how it is influenced today, of children who are saying things that shouldn't be in the vocabulary of a child so young. And about standing up for what's right. Joe is just 9, and all he wants is someone to eat with and play with. And he wants to forget this too, but he can't. Because whenever we face disappointment or shock, an innocence is lost. Mean has entered his life, unfairness is there. It was going to happen at some point--the imprint made of these judgments will remain like a stain on his memory. It'll inform his future decisions, so that's why it's important to confront them now. He could bring in some cookies for his table at lunch, or he could just eat his cookie and answer that he just likes them. That's what we've talked about. It's the beginning of standing your ground and claiming your space. Joe needs to do that. And he will. That's what sets the color of your character, these moments small and seemingly insignificant, of staying the course of your own truth. Once that's done, and done successfully, no matter what the scale, you begin to move on. It's the beginning of being the instrument of change, I believe, for the entire world.

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