Monday, October 22, 2012

Tightropes and Wonder

October is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month here in the US, and I’ve been trying for weeks now to think of the right way to share our family’s story from the past year. Blogging about real children is a tightrope walk—you never want to share anything too painful or too raw, or anything that your child feels is too personal. But you do want to share those universal moments that might resonate with other parents and kids who are struggling. Because sometimes those shared moments weave together to form a net that catches people when they are falling, helping them feel a little less alone in the void. So here goes the tightrope walk (my son gets the final edit).
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

A little over a year ago, our family moved to a small town just south of the suburb where we had lived for all of my 12-year-old son’s life. We had lots of good reasons for moving, and both kids were ready for the adventure of a new beginning. Our older son already knew a handful of kids at his new school through sports, and he quickly acclimated to his changed environment.

Our younger son—who is delightfully quirky and enthusiastically intellectual—found himself in a country grade school where he knew no one, surrounded by kids who were nothing like him. He delighted in reading. They delighted in kicking him in the shins under his desk when he pulled out a book. He loved to grapple with difficult math problems. They loved to sneer and mock him for loving what they hated. He had a malformed, smaller left hand, and he was surrounded by kids who refused to tolerate differences.

Day by day, they peeled away his confidence and his well-being and his sense of self. They carved him with whispered taunts, cutting away at how he saw himself, until all that was left was a shell of the boy he had been. Tears. Panic. Daily heartache. And that was before the day last spring when he was attacked on the playground. A single punch to the mouth left him bleeding and stitched and swollen, unable to eat solid food for over a week. The classroom teacher truly ached for him and tried to help, but she and I agreed that the best solution for my son was to get away from there, to start over in a school with kids more like him.

We found our silver lining in a new school this year in a district not far from here—another year of being the new kid, but with much different results. My son has found his tribe. When he brings up questions about wormholes and time travel in science class, the other students mull over and discuss his ideas, never even considering that the concepts might be unusual. He passes notes with a friend coded via the Periodic Table. He jokes with his pals about his “lucky hand" and shares the hallways with a stellar athlete who has no hand at all. He has friends. He is happy. We are happy.

But what happens to those kids who came so close to destroying him last year? How do they grow past their brutish tendencies when the people who are different from them are chased away? How do they learn to be anything more than what they are? What will they do in the larger world when they are faced with people who are disabled, or gay, or culturally different from them? The thought makes me almost unbearably sad.

Yesterday afternoon, I read a delightful book that could be part of the solution. Wonder, by R.J. Palacio is an exceptionally written middle-grade novel that captures the pain of bullying so poignantly, so beautifully, that the story and its message resonate long after the last page is turned. If I were still teaching (grades 4-6), I would buy a class set of this novel, and we would spend the month of October reading and discussing it to lay a foundation for mutual understanding and to facilitate a culture of kindness. Even if you don’t routinely read children’s books just for the joy of experiencing the quality literature being produced in that category today, you should make an exception for this book. But have tissues handy. Really.

            “… in the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. 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.”
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

Bullying is not just an October problem. It’s an everyday, everywhere problem that can only be solved when people consciously remove themselves from the neutral bystander camp and become protectors of the least of us. This month, and every day of every single other month, do what you can in your world to foster mutual understanding and compassion.

Please leave your ideas and comments below.