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Saturday, August 18, 2018

There has been a lot of hype lately surrounding the movie “Wonder,” based on the novel of the same name by R.J. Palacio. Just for starters, if you have not read this book, my recommendation is to put down whatever novel you are currently reading and start reading Wonder. If you have any children of school age in your life, ask them if they’ve read it, had it read to them in class, or have seen it on a classroom or library shelf. Chances are, the answer to some combination of those questions will be “yes.” I only hope that children manage to read the book and don’t simply opt for the movie version. I also desperately hope that the movie does the book justice. As I sit writing this, the movie has yet to open in theaters; by the time you read this the movie will have been out for almost two weeks.

Wonder, for those of you who are not in the know, is the story of August “Auggie” Pullman, a boy who has facial differences and has, up until 5th grade when the story starts, been home-schooled. The typical “new kid in school” trials and tribulations are all exacerbated by Auggie’s physical appearance, and the way his peers and others respond to him are the foundation of his story. Unlike the book, where August tells us “My name is August, by the way. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking it’s probably worse,” in the movie, we do see Auggie’s face. We see what his classmates and teachers see. We see what he worked so hard in the book to hide.

Auggie is fortunate enough to have allies in not just his family but his principal, Mr. Tushman, and his amazing teacher, Mr. Browne, who, with his monthly precepts (“September Precept—When given the choice between being right and being kind, I choose kind”), are models of what all adults should be to the children entrusted to their care. They are the kind of educators who are equal parts the type we all want to be, believe we are and are too perfect to exist outside the pages of a poignant novel for children. Equally wonderful are the children who befriend Auggie. There is Summer, the girl who chooses to sit with Auggie at lunch every day, not out of pity or because she needs to fill some chesed hours, but because she sees in Auggie a regular kid, just like her, who is longing to belong. There is Jack Will, who starts off being his “welcome buddy” because an adult saw in him that spark of kindness and sensitivity, but struggles to balance doing the right thing because it’s right (and because he really does like Auggie) and worrying about putting his status in the class at risk. Then there are the others, kids like Charlotte and Julian who, for a variety of reasons, find it harder to befriend and accept Auggie despite having been chosen to be his welcome buddies alongside Jack. It then becomes the job of the grown-ups to help the children navigate their feelings and these new experiences, though in some cases the adults have an equally difficult time doing so.

In a world of hashtags, messaging and branding, Wonder has been the inspiration behind a “Choose Kind” initiative. There are tee-shirts proudly proclaiming “I Choose Kind,” #ChooseKind on social media, and November 13 was designated as World Kindness Day. We can all agree that what the world needs right now is a bit more kindness. Many of us are afraid to turn on the news most mornings in fear of what devastation or horror will be reported. How do we, as adults, as role models, as parents and educators, explain the notion of “choosing kind” in a world where so many are not? Why do we need to have a “day” of kindness? Why isn’t every day kind? Where do being kind and doing chesed intersect? How do we ensure that, even on days when we’re tired, frustrated or just not in the mood, we still model kindness, respect and acceptance?

Most schools today have programs that are designed to teach pro-social behavior. Some call it Anti-Bullying, others call it Character Education. Whatever the name, at its core we’re talking about creating a culture of kindness. Not a day of kindness, a culture of kindness. Is kindness something that can be taught, or is it something that is part of our DNA? How do we help children separate true kindness from doing an act of chesed? How do we instill in our children the notion of doing what’s right because it’s the right thing to do? How do we define “right”?

Christa M. Tinari, co-author of “Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School: 48 Character-Building Lessons to Foster Respect and Prevent Bullying,” offers a number of tips for creating a culture of kindness. She suggests that talking openly and honestly with children is key. Acknowledging that sometimes it’s hard to be kind, offering a “redo” when a child is not making good choices and appreciating the effort a child puts into making those good choices, even when it’s difficult, all go a long way towards enabling kindness to prevail long after the initial excitement and momentum of a chesed project campaign has worn off. It also helps to remind children that even the best of people do not always make the best of choices, and that too is part of the lesson.

This, to me, is an essential message. There is a scene in “Wonder” where Jack sees his younger brother Jamie being mean. Jack comments that “if a little kid like Jamie, who’s usually a nice enough kid, can be that mean, then a kid like August doesn’t stand a chance in middle school.” It is here that we’re reminded that it isn’t only mean people who do hurtful things. Sometimes the nicest of people say and do things that are hurtful to others, so we must always be aware of how our actions may affect others. In “Auggie and Me: Three Wonder Stories,” the companion novel to “Wonder,” we get to hear Julian’s side of the story. We learn why Julian acts and reacts the way he does, and it’s not offered as an excuse for bullying, but rather a reminder that there’s always an underlying reason for a behavior.
In her introduction to “Auggie and Me,” Palacio reminds us that “He acted badly, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a ‘bad kid.’ Our mistakes don’t define us.” What an important and powerful message.

Every school has its Julians, Summers, Jack Wills and Auggies. It is our job to help children navigate their feelings and fears and help them figure out who they want to be. It is also our responsibility to help children learn to make good choices, to face their fears and feel supported, and know that yes, they are good people and no, not every decision they make is going to be a good one. It is also our responsibility to teach and model kindness and acceptance, to not “judge a book by it’s cover,” to help children learn how to be a friend but also to understand that sometimes it’s enough to simply be friendly. Some children seem to do this intuitively; others need a little more help getting there.

At our school, we use Rosh Chodesh to highlight students who have been identified by their teachers as models of kindness and midot tovot as our “Mentches of the Month.” This year, we renamed it the “TCA Award,” and children are being called out as models of our core values; Torah, Chesed and Ahavat Yisrael. We strive to teach and model kindness and acceptance beyond chesed hours and mitzvah projects and weave those ideals into the fabric of the way we interact with each other, parents, students and teachers alike.

I am infinitely proud of our students. They look for opportunities to help their teachers and classmates. They help and support each other. This year we saw a record number of new students enrolling across the grades. In each grade, in each situation, the “new kid” was embraced and accepted so completely and purely that within just a few days it became impossible to tell just who was new. I was particularly proud the day, a few weeks into the school year, when I walked a new student into her class for the very first time. As a way of introduction, I notified the students that I had a surprise for them. When I announced that the surprise was a new classmate, the entire class, let me say that again—The. Entire. Class.—erupted in cheers and warm welcomes. They’re not perfect, I guarantee, but they are kind. They are loving.They look out for one another. They remind us of the types of people we should be and the types of examples we should be for others. I have no doubt that they are well on their way to making the world a better place and when given the choice, they will choose kind.

By Stacy Katzwer

 Mrs. Stacy Katzwer is the elementary school principal at Tenafly Chabad Academy.