I have an addiction to young adult novels. I pretend to be “screening” them for Emma, but really I just love to read them. I find the no-bullshit voice of a a young person refreshing: the sparse language, the honest observations, the raw self-reflection and poignant realizations about life. Or maybe I just like books that I can read in one day.
Which is what I did with this one:
Wonder is the fictional story of 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman. Born with several genetic abnormalities, Auggie’s face is so disfigured that he announces on the first page: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you are thinking, it’s probably worse.”
When the previously home-schooled Auggie enters the fifth grade at a mainstream school, a story of bravery, adversity and transcendence unfolds. The book starts with Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include that of his classmates, his sister, etc. The voices are different but the core questions are the same: Who am I, really? What do I believe in? What does it mean to be brave?
If you managed to survive middle school, you can only imagine what it’s like for Auggie. “Like a lamb to the slaughter,” is how he overhears his dad describe it. But the desire to live his life outweighs the fear of kids “looking away” when he walks down the hall.
The pure “wonder” of Auggie is astounding; his bravery undeniable. But the reality is, he didn’t have much of a choice. Humans need to connect to thrive. Auggie takes a huge risk when he goes to school in pursuit of this connection. But he knows if he never leaves his comfort zone, he will never grow.
It’s the other characters – and how they choose to either embrace or reject Auggie – that fascinates me. Because they do have a choice. A few choices, in fact. They can:
- Choose to be an asshole.
- Choose to be nice but distant. Be nice but not necessarily do anything nice.
- Choose to be brave. To see beyond Auggie’s exterior and discover what lies beneath the surface.
I would love to say I fall in Category #3, and once and a while, I do. But mostly I am a #2. Which may be worse than #1. An asshole is an asshole. Even when an asshole pretends to be otherwise, everyone still knows what’s up.
But choosing to be a #2 is like not choosing at all. Nice is neutral. Nice is beige. The trap is, no one argues with beige. No one is going to come into your house and say, “Holy crap, you painted your living room Practical Beige? Were you high??” But they also aren’t going to say, “Wow, dude. Practical Beige was a ballsy move.”
My point is, it’s easy to not move beyond nice. You’re not hurting anyone by being nice. You just aren’t helping anyone either. You’re not going to the places that scare you. You stay in the place that feels….nice. Your comfort zone. Which is painted Practical Beige.
I am going somewhere with this. Eventually.
I started reading Wonder early last Saturday morning, and I thought of my friend Margie. I met her through Phil on a weekend handicapped retreat (the HEC) we used to go on before we had kids. Margie is in her late 60’s, lives alone in a house near Villanova and has advanced Cerebral Palsy. We haven’t seen her in years, and now that we are back in the area, I think of her every time I drive past her street.
So later that day, I decided to go for a run to Margie’s house.
It was a little farther than my out of shape legs remembered, and my snail’s pace gave me a little bit too much time to think. What if she doesn’t remember me? What if I scare her, just barging in? What if I can’t understand what she is saying? Maybe this is a bad idea. Maybe I should have called first.
And when I finally reached her house…I kept running.
Yeah, not a proud moment.
When I confessed to Phil, he said, “Don’t feel bad, it was a really nice idea.”
Sidebar: How Phil originally met Margie. When he was a sophomore at Villanova, Phil saw an ad in the campus paper: “Morning volunteer needed to help disabled woman put on leg braces.” So everyday before his 8:30 class, he ran from his dorm to Margie’s house and put on her leg braces.
Running 3+ miles to someone’s house and then chickening out at the last minute? Not so much.
That night, I finished reading Wonder, and Auggie’s words hit me hard:
It’s like people you see sometimes, and you can’t imagine what it would be like to be that person, whether it’s someone in a wheelchair or somebody who can’t talk. I know I am that person to other people. To me, though, I’m just me. An ordinary kid.
I didn’t run past Margie’s house because I was scared of what I might see in her. Margie is Margie. She’s funny and loving and fiercely loyal. I ran past because I was scared of what she would see in me. The awkward and nervous prodigal friend who is not nearly as brave and amazing as she is.
To which Margie would reply, “That’s stupid.”
To choose to be brave is to stop wallowing in your own inadequacy and just freaking shut up and show up. Choosing to be brave is not having “nice ideas” or hiding behind a safe email after you ran down the street like a chicken shit. It’s choosing to not look away from the stuff inside that makes you look away, which is exactly the stuff that keeps you from being brave and amazing.
For me, I think bravery will come when I stop being nice and start being real. So this weekend, I am running to Margie’s. For real, this time.
What keeps you from being brave and amazing?