In the 1800's, British historian, James Bryce, said, "The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it." Almost two hundred years later, I tell my students the same thing. When I choose read aloud titles, I always look for books that will push my students out of their comfort zone and challenge the way they think. I want the books I read to them to leave them asking questions about the way they view the world and the way they interact with others. I know it's a lofty aspiration, but I want them to grow in their understanding of human nature and the world around them as a result of what I read to them.
For this reason, I love reading Wonder by R.J. Palacio to my students. In summary, Wonder is the story of ten-year-old Auggie who is a normal kid on the inside, but not on the outside. August was born with a life-threatening facial abnormality, and has had to be homeschooled his whole life. His life changes forever when enters fifth grade at a private school in Manhattan. Wonder is the transformative story of Auggie's fifth grade year at Beecher Prep.
Though this plot summary is accurate, it does not do Wonder justice. The power of this book lies in its message, not in its story line. When asked why she wrote the book, R.J. Palacio said, she intended the book to be a "meditation on kindness". She said she wanted to impress upon her readers the power of words. In an interview, she said, "You all have the power to change lives. Remember the power of words, and think about how you want to be remembered."
I've read this book to my last two classes and both groups were prfoundly impacted by the book. Their empathy for others increased, and it changed the way they interacted with their peers. I find it interesting that both classes were especially affected by the same quote from the main character. When Auggie goes to see his older sister in a play, she gets a standing ovation at the end of her performance. Auggie is impressed by the crowd's reaction to her performance and says, “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives." Later in the story, Auggie receives an award at graduation and gets a standing ovation from the audience. The kids totally got the significance of the standing ovation for Auggie. They recognized that the applause for Auggie symbolized how far he had come in just one year, and what a profound impact the love and acceptance of the Beecher Prep school community has had on his life.
I have to admit, it warmed my heart and brought a tear to my eye, when I finished the book both times and my classes gave ME a standing ovation. And I am not the only one lucky enough to be on the receiving end of such a spontaneous display of love and appreciation from these kids. Last year's class, started a standing ovation for the retiring teachers at an assembly at the end of school, and this year's class gave the autistic support classes a standing ovation after their performance of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" at our annual Holiday Show. It is powerful to be in their presence and see the kids look at one another tentatively and slowly rise out of their seats because they feel moved by someone or something, and they want to express their feelings.
There was another standing ovation at school last week that everybody's been talking about. I wasn't there to witness it personally, but it melted my heart just to hear about it. When a soldier returning from deployment oversees came to visit one of our teachers and her class that adopted his unit last year, the teacher took him on a tour of the building. The tour included the lunchroom, and our fourth and fifth graders happened to be eating at the time. When Lt. Nicholas Parisi from the U.S. Army walked into the cafeteria, my students actually started a spontaneous standing ovation for him. No adult TOLD them to do it. They just felt moved to show their respect and appreciation for our military and all the brave men and women who protect our freedoms and keep us safe, so they got up out of their seats and showed Lt. Parisi some love.
I wonder if R.J. Palacio has any idea how far-reaching the impact of her novel actually is. Does she even know that ordinary people are choosing to be "kinder than necessary" because of Auggie's story? At the end of Wonder, Mr. Tushman, the school principal, gives a speech at graduation. In the address he says, "If every 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." From what I heard from the adults who were in the lunchroom when Lt. Parisi got his standing ovation the other day, it was a beautiful moment. The world got a little brighter for a minute, and everyone who was there carried a ray of that light away with them in their hearts.
The world needs more moments like this, and I just want to thank R.J. Palacio for writing a book that gives teachers a beautiful platform for having conversations about kindness, love, and compassion with our students. The world is a better place because of her book.