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“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”
That’s my favorite Dr. Seuss quote of all time. It challenges me to be my best and not accept ordinary as the status quo. This quote has always spoken to me during times when I’ve felt small, because I’ve always considered myself just a little bit “different.”
But my differences are on the inside. I’m quirky and awkward. I’ve made some life choices that are outside the realm of typical when compared with my contemporaries. The truth is, I can list lots of reasons why I stand out; but when I walk through a crowd, I look pretty much like everyone else: Ordinary.
But what happens when you don’t look ordinary? What happens when you physically stand out, when routine things like going to school or eating pancakes in a diner attract attention?
I know a little something about that, too.
My son Zack has a limb difference. The technical term is Symbrachydactly, but we just call it his little hand because that’s what it is. He looks different. His hand (or lack thereof) might not be the first thing you notice about Zack, but you do notice, eventually.
We’re no strangers to pointing and staring. Some people nudge each other and whisper as they watch him do something we consider mundane, like playing sports or cutting a stack of pancakes with his fork. The lady at the adjacent table totally ruined Sunday brunch for me at Denny’s last year because apparently, someone eating pancakes one-handed was the most riveting thing ever. I’m sure her intent was not to be intrusive but you just never know what people’s reactions to seeing something different will be.
For the most part, being Zack’s mom is ordinary. He’s 7, so I say stuff like “please flush,” “stop picking that,” and “why is this wet?” on loop all day. I listen to lots of knock-knock jokes and watch patiently as he works toward the goal of making the perfect fart noise with his armpit.
But we also deal with the occasional rude remark. Sometimes he cries because someone teases him. I look for strong role models who serve as examples of how to stand out and rise to the top in spite of appearances or limitations. Sometimes we meet people in person who can do extraordinary things despite disabilities. Sometimes we see them on TV. It’s always been important to show Zack he’s not the only person with physical differences who kicks ass at life.
And you better believe we’ll be first in line to see the movie Wonder when it comes out this November.
Wonder, which is based on the R.J. Palacio novel by the same name, tells the story of Auggie Pullman, a boy who no one would dare describe as ordinary. Auggie was born with a physical condition that resulted in severe facial deformities. The movie is set as Auggie begins 5th grade. Due to his medical conditions and the 27 surgeries that allowed him to breathe, see, and hear without a hearing aid, he’d been unable to attend school until that point in time.
Twenty-seven surgeries were able to achieve a lot of things, but they couldn’t make him look ordinary. When one of his friends innocently asks if plastic surgery was an option, Auggie’s answer is “Dude, this is after plastic surgery.”
The two-minute-long trailer, which was released over the weekend, gives you a glimpse into what the movie is about — and trust me, if you haven’t watched it yet, you should.
I already know I’m going to need at least two box of tissues when the movie comes out, because I bawled like a baby all four times I watched the trailer. (And if you don’t get super emotional when watching it too, then you might want to check your pulse.)
It’s easy to see that Auggie’s story is one of inspiration, one that tells the heartaches and triumphs of a person who is “born to stand out.” As a mom to a child with a physical difference, I completely lost it when Julia Roberts, who plays Auggie’s mother, watches her son enter the school building for the first time while whispering, “Please God, just let them be nice to him.”
Because I know exactly what that feels like.
We live in a small community where everyone knows Zack. He’s lived here as long as he can remember and his differences aren’t surprising to anyone.
But we venture out of our bubble from time to time and encounter new people who’ve never seen a kid with a limb difference. I know what it’s like to pray and wish for kindness for my child and I know what it’s like to brace myself in that moment where we have to react to someone who receives his differences with rudeness or mean-spiritedness.
For the most part, people have been good to us and any unkindness has been minimal. But I still remember, with a twinge of pain, the moment when a young man on a bus moved away from us four years ago — while pointing to Zack’s hand and audibly remarking “how gross” it was. The memory comes back to me with the same clarity as something that happened yesterday. And each time, it stings.
I remember the look of hurt and confusion on my son’s 3-year-old face as he ran away from a group of big kids who were jeering at him on a playground we didn’t usually go to.
I remember those moments. Zack doesn’t.
As he gets older, he’ll have more of those experiences without me. Chances are, the jerk face who decides to make fun of him one day is going to do it when I’m not around.
The world can be cruel when you’re put together a little differently than everyone else. There are times when I watch my son skipping away from me at the playground or racing across the soccer fields and I squeeze my eyes shut, wishing for people to always treat him with compassion and to want to know him for his humor, tenacity, and mad skills on the dance floor.
I hope this movie about an unlikely hero reaches those would-be playground bullies. I hope they remember Auggie when they’re faced with the temptation to tease or exclude — or worse, stand by when others tease or exclude. I hope this movie is a lesson in kindness to someone out there who needs it and a reminder that celebrating those who stand out is more important than fitting in. Because I truly believe it has the power to do all that, and more.