The movie “Wonder” is the story of a young boy, Auggie, who has a facial deformity. He has been in an out of the hospital for his entire life. The whole family revolves around his care, and everything else gets put on hold: Mom’s academic career, sister’s attention, and poor dad doesn’t even get a chapter devoted to him. Auggie, however, has the hardest time, he knows that he looks different from other kids, and now he has to face the horror of going to school for the first time, in *gasp* middle school. Now, let’s just say it here and now, middle school is tough for everyone involved, but to start at a school for the first time with a noticeable difference, well, that makes it all the harder.
I admit, I cried for at least 75% of the movie “Wonder.” (Wendy cried for the whole movie.) And why not, there were moments that I could relate to, because at some point in her childhood, my beautiful teenage daughter looked different from other kids, but she was too young to notice.
Because of Wendy’s incredibly high blood pressure, she was taking five different blood pressure medications. One of them, minoxidil, is a vasodilator; it expands the blood vessels, which lowers the blood pressure. You might have heard of the drug, minoxidil, it’s the main drug in Rogaine. It’s side effect is that you grow extra hair, hair that is darker and more coarse. For Wendy, she went from a blond to a brunette in just a few months, and her hair grew so quickly that I needed to get her hair cut every three weeks.
Wendy had other things going on, a patch that she wore just below her collar bone for another drug that helped control her blood pressure, and the hair wasn’t just on her head, it was all over: arms, legs, forehead, back. She looked….well….different. Obviously, different.
Wendy was only four, and being the vibrant child that she was, she didn’t notice. We still went to museums and the park, and walked to the hospital twice a week for blood work. She still swam in the public pool and played in the splash parks. She had an easy smile and a friendly, outgoing personality with other kids.
But the other moms, well, they looked a little nervous around my child. And the kids, well, they would ask what was wrong with Wendy, why she looked like that. Thank God, Wendy never noticed. I would explain that Wendy has an illness and she takes a special medicine to make her feel better, but the medicine makes her grow extra hair. That satisfied the other kids, maybe not so much the other moms.
Then there were the times where people who knew Wendy didn’t recognize her because she had gone from a blond to a brunette, because she had the puffy cheeks due to her kidney failure, because she had the patch below her collar bone. Those people would see me and ask where Wendy was, and then visibly startle when I pointed to the child next to me. Those are the ones Wendy noticed.
There was a woman who cut Wendy’s hair, every three weeks, at Supercuts. We would arrive, and the other beauticians were visibly concerned over how to cut Wendy’s hair, and this woman would just scoop her up, ask about her day, give her two lollipops, and say, “See you in three weeks.” I loved that woman, because she didn’t make a big deal about Wendy. Wendy was just another kid to that woman.
I cried because I could relate to some, but not all, of the feelings that the mother, played by Julia Roberts, was going through. Yep, my life had been put on hold. Yep, my life revolved around Wendy’s care. Yep, I still worry that Penny doesn’t get enough attention. Yep, I worry about every new step forward that Wendy has to take ( like going to Washington DC this spring with her 8th grade class for a week without me. I think I might die.)
But the truth is, that most of us, thankfully, are not Auggie, and we are not Auggie’s mom. Most of us aren’t Auggie’s sister, or dad.
Most of us are Auggie’s friend, Jack Will.
Jack knows that Auggie is different, and doesn’t know what to do about it. He’s nice to Auggie because he has been asked to be, and because he is a scholarship student, he’s feeling like he really has to do it. But he learns that Auggie is sweet and kind and funny and smart, and they really become friends. But Jack still knows that Auggie looks different. Jack says the wrong thing on Halloween, about his appearance, hurting Augie’s feelings and having to make amends. Spoiler alert: it turns out to be ok. Jack Will realizes his mistake when Auggie starts to avoid him.
Jack was my favorite in the book, and he was my favorite in the movie because while Auggie’s family doesn’t have much choice, they need to be supportive of Auggie. Jack does have a choice, and he chooses to be kind. Which is the point of the story.
The author, R.J. Palacio, wrote the book Wonder because of a real life experience. Her young son burst out crying, seeing the face of a young boy with a facial deformity at an ice cream shop. She was so mortified, because her child wasn’t emotionally prepared to be kind to this young boy, and she went home and wrote the book, from multiple perspectives. Each perspective in the book speaks from one of the characters (except the Dad, which gets me angry). Each perspective shows that living life with a loved one who is ill isn’t easy, but you make room for kindness. Bad days will happen, but you move forward, together.
Auggie’s presence changed the tenor of the school, because he was kind as well. And the other students became protective of him when they saw how the outside world viewed him because they didn’t know him. You would be tempted to say that the moral of “Wonder” is don’t judge a book by it’s cover, but you would only be half right.
The other half of the moral is it’s ok to be afraid and kind at the same time.
That’s the lesson we want to teach our kids.