Exceptional children… need exceptional teachers

Recently Menlo School assigned Wonder by R.J. Palacio to all students, staff and teachers as our summer reading assignment. In Wonder, we read about August Pullman, a boy who must navigate his way through the complicated world of middle school while struggling with the ramifications of Treacher-Collins Syndrome, a cranio-facial deformity.

Initially the book appears to be written for middle schoolers, but it was indeed a wise choice for the summer reading assignment for our entire community of all ages. While on the airplane to Costa Rica with the middle school Girls’ Leadership Club for a community service trip, I sobbed for hours while reading the story of August navigating the dynamics of American society…  no easy task for a young person, even without a facial deformity.

In Wonder, Palacio confronts the reader with situations to which every single one of us can relate — feeling left out, being the new kid in school and not knowing where to find your classrooms, weaving through the crowd to your locker on the first day, wearing the wrong costume on Halloween, having the wrong hairdo, and perhaps the very worst part of all– not having anyone with whom to sit in the school cafeteria. The list goes on and on and on with examples of all the ways in which we have all felt that we didn’t exactly fit in, that our friends and acquaintances didn’t understand us, or that we felt under-equipped to deal with the every-day challenges we face in life.

On top of that, the protagonist in Palacio’s story, August, was born with a series of facial deformities. He deals with unwanted attention on a daily basis and endures unfair discrimination. The fact that August has physical issues in addition to the emotional, psychological and social challenges that every American pre-teen faces only compounds the anguish that the reader experiences while experiencing August’s brilliantly articulated story.

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Similarly, (or dissimilarly), I coincidentally just finished reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, published a few years ago in 2003 with Christopher Boone as the protagonist. Unlike August Pullman in Wonder, who communicates his emotions very clearly, it is more difficult to get to know Christopher, as the protagonist is mildly autistic and Haddon does an artful job of conveying the ways in which the character lacks the capacity to vocalize his feelings while being unable to empathize with others.

I was fascinated by two episodes in particular in Haddon’s book. While meeting with his special ed teacher / school counselor, Christopher reveals that he cannot yet place himself in someone else’s shoes. There is a Smarties tube of candies, but inside is a pencil. Christopher voices that he expects inside is Smarties candies, and when he opens the tube he finds a pencil. The teacher asks Christopher what his mother would expect to find inside the tube of Smarties candies if she were to enter the room at that moment, and he says that she would expect to find a pencil. The reader immediately understands the issue with this reasoning, but Christopher is unaware of other peoples’ perspectives. Imagine how difficult it would be for a young person to have a meaningful life experience if he is unable to see the world from another’s point of view. Being a young person presents enough challenges as it is.

However, at another occasion, Christopher understands a math riddle that seems so obvious to the typically-educated person at first. I was convinced of the answer, and Christopher says that educated people are convinced of the wrong answer. After further re-reading of the scenario and drawing my own diagram (several times!) of various choices one could make within that scenario, Christopher’s explanation finally convinced me that I had been wrong in the first place. Christopher is a complex character, because in the first example above he is unable to predict what another person would presume, yet in the latter example he is able to show educated people that their own presumptions were incorrect.

While the protagonists in both stories seem to be virtual opposites of each other, there is an amazingly powerful underlying factor in both books– schools and education. When Christopher’s family life completely deteriorates, one of his first instincts is to go find Siobhan, his counselor at school, a trusted adult on whom he relies for good advice. Similarly in Wonder, August benefits from what he learns in Mr. Browne’s class; that is, all the precepts Mr. Browne teaches that encourage the students towards purpose- and value-driven lives. Despite all the pain that August encounters while attempting to integrate with his classmates, it is undeniable that his education and family’s ultimate decision to enroll him in a school (rather than homeschool) lead to his further development.

While reading Wonder certainly benefitted everyone in my school’s community due to its message of empathy, I think it’s actually the teachers who stand to benefit the most from reading it. My summer reading, that is, Wonder, followed by my own choice of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, shows me what an important role I play in society by being a teacher. So many of the world’s children face unfair incidences of exclusion, discrimination, and overall difficulty in feeling included and relating to others, and both books helped me to realize my role as an ambassador– that apart from all the duties listed on my official contract, my most important job is to be an ambassador for youth– to help guide kids safely through the struggles of being an American pre-teen, dealing with pressures and feeling like you don’t fit in. The best part is at the very end of middle school when the kids finally figure out that the coolest things about them are the ways in which they were different and were brave enough to stand out! It’s teachers’ jobs to create safe and productive environments to foster the ways in which kids want to be unique and shine. It’s teachers’ jobs to reach every child, whether he has a facial deformity, struggles with autism, is into art, or theater or running, or pets, blogging, or the school newspaper, and no one should be made to feel bad if she loves some class or comic book or cartoon, and that interest should be nourished by their teachers and said students should find themselves in meaningful productive opportunities set up for them by their teachers.

That is what I learned from my summer reading- the true role of being a teacher is more important than curriculum, more important than a student’s report card, more important than administrative duties, more important than a twenty minute lunch break, more important than your parking spot on campus, more important than beating rush hour- helping a student feel included and valued can change a person’s life. Luckily I have two parents who are teachers and they knew how to do that, and luckily I had teachers at my school growing up who made me feel valued. Moreover, every teacher needs to realize that she may perhaps be the very last person on Earth to whom a particular child can turn for guidance, and that’s why at every moment a teacher has to foster an environment in which every student feels valued.

Thank you to Palacio and Haddon for so brilliantly depicting the struggles children face and for shining a light on the important roles teacher and adults play in children’s lives.

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