Wonderful life lessons

Whether you found the film Wonder moving or mawkish, its "Choose Kind" theme will serve well as a New Year resolution

Not long after the opening credits, a big fat lump lodged in my throat and refused to budge. Fifteen minutes into the movie, I was furiously trying to blink away tears. Towards the end, I had a fine collection of balled-up tissue paper that I'd used (at first surreptitiously, then "oh heck it" openly) to wipe my eyes and nose.

I'd expected Wonder, a coming-of-age tale about a boy born with facial deformities, to be touching. But I didn't think I'd need one whole pack of tissue paper.

"Maybe it's because as a mum, I really feel for kids who are bullied or ostracised," I told my equally misty-eyed husband. "And imagine the pain and helplessness of his parents."

The film is based on the 2012 best-selling book of the same name by R.J. Palacio. Auggie Pullman, the young protagonist, starts fifth grade in a mainstream school after years of being home-schooled by his mum.

He is as unprepared to face the horrified looks as the other children are to look him in the face, and his toy astronaut helmet becomes his security blanket.

The 10-year-old is mocked, taunted, shunned and, then, most wrenchingly, betrayed by the only friend he thought he had.

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

The reasons for exclusion are many and the rules vary from day to day. If so-called normal kids like mine can easily become outliers, I ache to think what other kids might have to deal with.

I don't pretend to know what challenges children with special needs or conditions face daily or the emotional turmoil their parents go through as they watch their kids try to find their spot in the world.

But parents have one thing in common: We hurt when our children hurt. And it doesn't take a distinctive trait, physical or otherwise, to mark one as different.

As I watched Auggie suffer for being the odd one out, I was reminded of all those times my kids came home crushed because they had felt left out in school.

The vagaries of childhood friendships are such that you can be tolerated one day and tormented the next, for children can be as generous as they are vicious.

Even good friends can suddenly turn frosty and you are lucky if you know why.

My son was once mocked and ignored for days after he was blamed for his team coming in last during PE games.

My daughter could not find friends to eat with for a spell when she started Primary 1 last year. Then, just as I thought things had settled down, she was booted out of her usual playground gang one day because "you're the only one among us who doesn't take ballet".

The incidents might sound trivial, even laughable. But in their world, these come as seismic shocks.

The reasons for exclusion are many and the rules vary from day to day.

If so-called normal kids like mine can easily become outliers, I ache to think what other kids might have to deal with.

But it doesn't take a parent to weep for Auggie. The story has resonated with folks around the world because we've all had our share of Wonder moments and experiences.

We've all been Auggie at some point and likely his tormentors at others. We've all been made to feel undesirable, unimportant, unwelcome or unworthy, or caused others to feel the same. I know I have and the realisation is both sad and sobering.

And while blatant bullying is abhorrent, the sin of omission is just as appalling.

Watching Auggie wage a lonely battle against malice and prejudice initially, I was both grieved and indignant that no one dared or cared to stand up for him. This is yet another perspective a lot of us can probably relate to.

How many times have we remained silent witnesses to unkind or unjust acts, watching from a distance and failing to act because of fear or inertia?

The book itself is the result of a grossly inadequate response, as author Palacio has said in interviews.

She was at an ice cream parlour with her two sons about 10 years ago when a young girl with severe facial abnormalities came in with her family.

Her younger son, who was about three then, started to cry and that hurt the girl.

“In my haste to shield her from his reaction, I whisked him away." Palacio recounted.

But her response haunted her.

"There were a million things I could have done differently and I became obsessed with that scene and thought, I am going to write a book about what it is like to face a world every day that doesn't know how to face you back."

The story, heartrending and heartwarming in equal parts, offers redemption not just to Palacio, but also to anyone who cares to heed its messages about acceptance and tolerance.

If someone cannot help the way they are, can we change the way we perceive them?

If we cannot see beyond the differences, can we at least focus more on the similarities?

My heart broke each time Auggie was made to feel unwanted, then lifted whenever we were shown how just a little kindness can go a long way. And that, really, is the central theme of Wonder, as it should be of our lives.

Whether we are the victim, perpetrator or bystander, Wonder gives us hope that there is always a better way to cope, a better way to behave.

On the first day of school, Auggie’s teacher Mr Browne introduces the class to a game-changing, life-giving precept: “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind."

Thanks to the popularity of the book, the quote by American motivational speaker and author Dr Wayne W. Dyer has taken on a life of its own.

It has sparked a “Choose Kind” movement in the United States, with various initiatives such as the Certified Kind Classroom programme and assorted kindness pledges and challenges.

The book has also become a powerful vehicle for open discussions on bullying in schools and communities.

Some critics have dissed the movie adaptation for being emotionally manipulative. But I would gladly sit through the five-hanky affair again, if only to be reminded of how we can make a difference to those who are different from us. 

Whether you found the film moving or mawkish, “Choose Kind” will serve well as a New Year resolution.


Correction note: This article has been updated.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 07, 2018, with the headline 'Wonderful life lessons'. Print Edition | Subscribe