Are you kinder than a fifth grader? Thoughts on ‘Wonder’

Auggie and Isabel

 

In his most recent stand-up special, Annihilation, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt relates an ongoing argument he had with his late wife. He would say that there is at least a basic “lattice-work plan” that binds the universe together to make a sort of sense of everything, and she would say “Nope, it’s chaos.” And then she would say, “So, be kind”. They were married just eleven years and had a 6-year-old daughter when Oswalt’s wife Michelle died suddenly in her sleep from an undiagnosed heart condition.

In the movie Wonder, based on the book by R. J. Palacio, the main character August Pullman (played by Jacob Tremblay) has an older sister, Via. Via (Izabela Vidovic) is a sweet teenage girl who has accepted the fact that her family’s world will always revolve around the sun/son that is Auggie. Auggie was born with a genetic anomaly that affects his facial structure, and years of doctor appointments, surgeries and navigating the world with this disability has placed the focus of the family on him. Via has always been Auggie’s best friend and ally, and in the movie her character provides one of the main mirrors in which Auggie is reflected.

At one point, Via brings a friend home to meet Auggie. After Auggie and his mom leave on an errand, Via explains that it is the result of about a 1-in-a-trillion chance that her parents both carried the genetic anomaly and passed it on. In another universe, Via says, she would look like Auggie.

It’s chaos, be kind.

From a young age, we are taught not to judge by appearances. We’re told not to stare, we’re told not to make fun of someone for the way they look or the way that they’re dressed. But let’s be honest. We do. We live in an image-conscious society, and when the rule above is applied, I find that it is usually applied within a construct of privilege and class. As in “don’t judge that poor person who I assume can’t afford to dress well.”

I grew up in an affluent suburb, and in those precious middle school years – the treacherous world into which August Pullman is thrown – looks are major. Bodies are changing and peer pressure is increasing as kids start to create their own societal structure. Kings are made, Queens exert power, courtiers connive for status, and fools and freaks are branded with semi-permanent marks.

I remember well when my mom told me a new girl was moving into my school around 6th grade. The family was also going to join our church, so mom said we were going to meet them and I should try to befriend the girl. I told this information to the boy who lived across the street and the first question he asked me was “is she cute?” My response was, “I hope so”.

The neighbor boy went on to say “well, you should hope she ISN’T, because you never want a new girl to be cuter than you,” as if some shuffling of cute-girl chess pieces were about to occur. I had actually given my response because I knew EXACTLY how new girls were likely to be treated if they weren’t good-looking. In fact, some shuffling of chess pieces was probably GOING to occur. As if any of us can choose our faces.

It’s chaos, be kind.

Some years ago, when my youngest daughter was about 4, we were out at a restaurant with my Mom. About halfway through lunch, a group of people walked in, and my mom began to stare. I can’t quite describe the look on her face, but it wasn’t one I saw often from my sweet mother. She was honestly speechless. She said to me in a whisper, “Oh my goodness, there’s a girl over there with two heads!”

I turned around and saw the group of people, including who she was talking about, and turned back to her. “Oh,” I said, “They’re twins.” I knew who they were.

Abby and Brittany are two fairly famous Minnesotans, who live just outside the Twin Cities. I understand that they had a reality show on not too long ago, but I remembered hearing about them maybe 15 years ago when I was watching a documentary about conjoined twins. As my youngest daughter was staring, and honestly freaking out, I explained to her that these were actually two young women who were twins, whose bodies didn’t separate fully before they were born, and that was that.

I knew that my young daughter wouldn’t be able to fully comprehend or register all the information, nor did I expect her to not react. But, while I felt it was important to acknowledge these women and what made them different from her, I also hoped to convey that it didn’t really mean anything beyond that, and that it didn’t change how we treat other people. Like Auggie, there’s about a 1-in-a-trillion chance that Abby and Brittany would have been born and conjoined in the way that they are, and they had nothing to do with determining it for themselves.

Later, my mom commented that she was impressed at how quickly and calmly I had reacted and helped my daughter deal with this particular situation. She said she wasn’t sure she would have known what to say, being rather shocked herself. Like I said, because of their uniqueness, I knew who the girls were right away, but also, without delving into self-psychology or defining moments in my past, for whatever reason I’ve always been hyper-aware of judgment by appearance. I’ve always identified with and have hoped to defend “the other,” and this time was no different. Abby and Brittany are, I would guess, used to being looked at, and like Auggie have learned to deal with it in their own way. But, I would also guess that, again like Auggie, they probably wish that people wouldn’t.

It’s chaos, be kind.

Near the beginning of “Wonder”, on Auggie Pullman’s first day of school, his homeroom teacher begins the year by talking about “precepts”. He asks the class if they know what a precept is, and they figure out pretty quickly that it means a kind of life motto, or value to live by. The teacher (Daveed Diggs) goes on to say that his precept for the year is “be kind”, and asks the students in his class to adopt it as theirs. As the year goes on, we see the ways in which kids are kind to Auggie, but also cruel. And then kind. And then cruel again. They are after all, only 10 years old.

As Auggie is on Halloween Day rightfully furious and sad about the way he has been treated by one of his friends, his sister Via comes to console him. No stranger to the curious fates and follies of school and friendships herself, Via sits down and looks at Auggie. “Look, school sucks. People change. And those are the rules.” And then she says “Now, let’s go Trick-or-Treating”.

As I look back on 2017, there are so many times that I could say I felt the world that I knew was falling apart. I saw so many instances when I felt kindness was the FURTHEST thing from anyone’s mind, and that it was not only a precept NOT to follow, but one to actually deride. I saw instances where public and important figures pointed out and made fun of “the other,” the different, and the 1-in-a-trillion anomaly. I saw instances where regular people were angry that “the other” even existed. So many times, I was furious, I was sad, I was astonished, I was afraid, and it felt like I had no control over ANY of it. And really, I don’t. But, as I remember, kids still went trick-or-treating this year.

The truth is, that 1-in-a-trillion thing could be right around the corner for any of us. When the unthinkable happens to us, when we feel alone, when we feel unfriended, unfollowed, unnoticed, both invisible AND singled out, who will console us? Will we be lucky enough to have friends, or our own Via? In Latin, the word Via (short for Olivia in “Wonder”), actually means “road” or “way.” In Wonder, we are only shown one short year in Auggie’s life, one short year in 5th grade, and though the movie ends on a hopeful note, we don’t really know what the road ahead holds for him. Eventually, there will come a time when he will have to travel the path uncharted, without a “way”. As we all do.

Years ago, my mom told me a story about getting together with some of her college friends. They hadn’t been together for some time, so they were really catching up on about 30 years of life. When the conversation turned to one woman who talked about her life as a mother and wife, another woman took her to task. She said something like “you were so creative and involved and successful in college! Why did you choose to just stay home?!” The woman responded, “You know, I discovered that the best thing for me to do is to make sure my own little corner of the world stays clean.”

So, here comes 2018. And, no matter what the talking heads and experts profess, no matter what the Twitter twits tweet, no matter what the graphs and trends and algorithms predict, none of us knows what lies ahead. It could be average, it could be 1-in-a-trillion. All I know is that it’s coming, and it’s an uncharted road.

We will disagree, we will argue, we will fight, we will offend. We will agree, we will defend, we will support and we will love. We will be human. And whether you believe in an omnipotent creator or a vast universal mathematical lottery, we will all be living it together. Scary, awesome, magical, beautiful, wonderful…it’s just us, folks. All we’ve got is each other.

Happy New Year. Be Kind.

 

P.S. Patton Oswalt got remarried in 2017. The new girl turned out to be a certified genius. Abby and Brittany just got their Minnesota teaching licenses.

 

 

Kate Pehrson is an occasional contributor to the Next Ten Words, who mostly reflects on the state of the world through her deep love of film and cinema. Follow More of Kate’s philosophical musings at @K8Pehrson

 

 

 

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