My youngest daughter and I have been reading the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Wonder is about a ten-year-old boy whose nickname is Auggie. As a result of a facial deformity he was born with, Auggie struggles with going to school and making friends.
This morning as we were reading, I was overcome with emotion.
Unable to hide the sound of my cracking voice while reading, I simply told my daughter that it made me so sad to see how mean children could be to one another. I wasn’t quite sure I could share my memory without making her think I had completely gone off the deep end. I was not ready to tell her that there was a time in my life when I, too, was Auggie.
In grade school, I decided I wanted to run for class office. As part of my bid for office, I had to make a speech, in the school auditorium, in front of the entire school.
My fear of public speaking made me pause for a second and question whether or not I really wanted to do this. Hating to be paralyzed by fear, I knew I had no other choice but to do it! So, on speech day, I put all of my fear in a safe place, tucked away so that I could move forward, walked on the stage, and delivered an “Obama style” speech (Okay, maybe I am stretching it when I say “Obama style” :-)). Unfortunately, my winning speech did not lead to victory for me, but I was still happy that I forced myself to get up and speak in front of the entire school.
Following my speech, relieved that it was over, I went outside to enjoy recess with the other kids. As we were playing, one of my friends casually shared that one of the teachers she was sitting next to made the following comment when I got on the stage to make my speech, “I don’t know why she would get up on that stage, in front of all of these people, looking like that.”
This teacher’s comment had nothing to do with how I was dressed or the hairstyle I had chosen for this very important event. She said this because I dared to put my vitiligo on display in front of the entire school. Something that I had absolutely no control over. (Vitiligo is a condition in which certain areas of the skin lose their pigment cells, causing white patches where the pigment cells are lost).
I believe, in hindsight, that my friend was totally shocked to hear an adult say out loud what many were probably thinking.
In their minds, I was supposed to shrink into the shadows because I was a young child who had “two-toned skin” over most of her body. Or, as my peers used to say, I looked like a zebra. Fortunately, as much as others tried to make me shrink into the shadows, I had a mother that was just as determined that I would not. It was my mother’s grit and determination that forced me to deal with my fear head -on.
To say that my mother was livid when I shared the teacher’s comments is an understatement.
She spent all of the time she could spare trying to build my self-esteem and make sure that I did not shrink into the shadows. A comment like this from a student was one thing. She could brush it off as sheer ignorance on the kid’s part. But for an adult to say this out loud, amongst young impressionable minds, was something beyond my mother’s comprehension. Not to mention the fact that this painful comment had made its way back to her little girl.
The following day my mother marched to that school and demanded a meeting with the principal and the teacher.
Not sure what result we were expecting, we were shocked to learn that the teacher adamantly denied making this statement. The principal, deciding to side with the teacher, bought my friend into the office with the goal of making her admit that she had, in fact, lied on the teacher. Exhibiting strength that I do not even know that I would have been capable of at that age, my friend maintained her position that the teacher did, in fact, make these comments. As a result of her unwillingness to change her story, my friend was paddled by the principal.
I saw that teacher many times after that event. Her inability to ever look me in the eye spoke volumes to me. It also solidified my belief that my friend was wrongfully punished.
It is funny how certain events can bring back memories that we work so hard to put out of our minds. It is also funny how certain events, many times unbeknownst to us, help form the person we become as adults. As an adult, I chose to become a litigator. My career requires me to stand up and advocate publicly for others on a regular basis. I guess I am still not willing to shrink into the shadows.
As we finish Wonder, it is my hope that the book teaches my daughter some compassion when it comes to others that may be “different”. And that rather than join in the ranks of children that spew cruel words, she will become that child that says that such behavior is not okay. If Wonder doesn’t inspire her, I hope that I do!
P.S. That is my strong mother and my teenage daughter in my featured image. My mother still has the same grit and determination that she had when I was a little girl. Thankfully, my children and my nephews get the benefit of having a grandmother like her in their life.