“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.” -R.J. Palacio, Wonder
For the past two weeks, my younger daughter and I have been reading the book Wonder. Although my third grader is fully capable of reading it to herself, I asked her if I could read it aloud. I’m learning to give my soul what it needs, and holding a book in my hands beneath a heavy quilt next to my girl is what I need right now. I’m two weeks away from my book deadline and my soul is weary. Book writing brings emotions to the surface … mortality to the forefront … doubt to its loudest … and exhaustion to its peak. But knowing I’ll be curling up with my girl and this book at the end of an intense day of writing has carried me through.
August, the main character in Wonder, was born with a facial deformity. He is going to middle school for the first time and is faced with many obstacles. Sometimes I am unable to read August’s painful admissions about being the object of people’s curiosities and hurtful comments. That’s when I pass the book over to Avery. She takes over without missing a beat and after a few minutes, asks, “Are you okay, Mom?” I wipe away my tears and tell her it hurts my heart to see people—especially children—being mistreated, alienated, and excluded. She nods as if she understands completely and then we talk about what we just read. I can’t remember this happening with any other book she’s read, so I go with it, even if it’s time to turn off the lights.
One conversation that stood out was when August’s teacher, Mr. Browne, asked the students to name some really important things. After many great student guesses, he reveals what he believes is the most important thing of all:
“Who we are,” he said, underlining each word as he said it. “Who we are! Us! Right? What kind of people are we? What kind of person are you? Isn’t that the most important thing of all? Isn’t that the kind of question we should be asking ourselves all the time? ‘What kind of person am I?’ Learning who you are is what your are here to do.”
-R.J. Palacio, Wonder
I turned to Avery and asked, “What kind of person are you?”
She confidently said, “I am a singer. I am a guitar player. I am a Noticer.”
“Yep. Those are things you do—and do very well,” I said, “but what about who you are. Try this: I am a _________ person.”
“Oh,” she smiled, “I get it.”
She decided she was a sweet person … a kind person … a happy person … a caring person. “I am a sensitive person, too,” she admitted with a slight cringe, as if it was something that might be frowned upon. “And so are you, Mama, remember?”
Besides being sensitive, she listed off all the things she thought I was: a writer person, a helpful person, a giving person, a nature-loving person, a cat person.
“I can also be an impatient person … a worrier person … a work-too-hard person who has a hard time relaxing,” I chipped in to be honest about who I am.
She laughed. “Glad I don’t have that problem. I love to chill!”
“Maybe you will rub off on me eventually,” I said holding her close. And that is when a powerful truth written my brilliant colleague, Sandy Blackard, came to mind. I’d kept the quote in a safe place knowing I’d need it someday. Sandy wrote:
“Children act according to whom they believe they are. Helping them change their beliefs about self is the permanent solution for helping them change their behaviors. That’s why it is so important to find our children’s hidden strengths and provide them with proof of these strengths.”–Sandy Blackard, award-winning author of Say What You See
I agreed with Mr. Browne that “what kind of person am I?” was indeed one of the most important questions we can ask our loved ones and ourselves. And given Sandy’s insight, it should be revisited whenever we notice someone’s hidden strengths or an admirable quality the person might not realize he or she possesses. A few days later, I was given the perfect opportunity to do just that.
As we drove to a Saturday morning swim meet, my usual chipper younger daughter was solemn. I could see the worry on her small, round face. The night before, she learned her coach entered her in the 200-meter individual medley, consisting of two laps of butterfly, two laps of backstroke, two laps of breaststroke, and two laps of freestyle.
“No, Mama. I cannot do that,” my normal agreeable child protested fiercely the night before. “The last time I swam a 200 race I lost my breath!” she cried.
Pointing out that her coach would not put her in something he didn’t believe she could do was ineffective. So was telling her how much she’d improved since that traumatic event. Telling her I believed she could it did not help the situation either. It was apparent she believed she would stop breathing again. She believed she couldn’t do it.
As soon as we got to the meet, I told the coach about her past experience and asked if he could he talk to her.
Since the 200 I.M. was the first event of the meet, I watched eagerly as Avery went from the warm up straight to the starting block. I was thrilled. Apparently talking to her coach was exactly what she needed. She was going to do it. The next thing I knew, her head dropped and her shoulders shook. I imagined how hard it must be be to cry with goggles on. Avery backed away from the blocks. I blinked back my own tears praying she would garner the strength to overcome her fear.
Spotting the breakdown from across the pool, her coach ran over. He put his hands on her shoulders and looked directly into her tearful face. With each word he spoke, I saw her breaths steady. Avery took her place on the starting block and dove in when the buzzer sounded.
For all eight laps of the race, her coach walked up and down her lane, cheering her on. She was doing it. She was doing it. She was doing what she thought she couldn’t do.
My daughter ran up to me afterwards and told me it was one of the best race she’d ever had. “I was scared, but I am so glad I did it!” she rejoiced.
“I am so proud of you!” I said hugging her wet body to my chest. “You were so brave and your strokes were beautiful! I love to watch you swim!”
On the way home, Avery asked if we could stop and visit the homeless cats at PetsMart. This is one of our favorite past times—to pet the cats through the cages, talk to them, read their stories about how they came to be there, and wish we could adopt them all.
Normally we have the little cat room all to ourselves, but this time there was a young woman standing anxiously in front of the cages wringing her hands. “I am about to get a cat,” she offered. “I live in an apartment, and I get lonely so I am getting that one.” She pointed to the small striped male. “I already have one, but I need another. I get lonely in my apartment,” she repeated.
Reminding me of one of my precious former special education students, I was about to say something encouraging to her. However, Avery spoke first.
“That is so nice of you to rescue a cat! You must be a very nice person,” she said earnestly.
“I am going to get the one with stripes. See,” the young woman pointed again.
“Ohhh … that’s a pretty one,” Avery gushed. “He’s so lucky to have you adopt him,” she added genuinely.
“I have had five brain surgeries since I was five,” she told us. “I love cats.”
The woman’s father stepped forward and smiled at us as if to say, “thank you,” and then he ushered his daughter off to fill out the necessary paperwork.
“That girl was special like your students,” Avery said when the door closed behind us. “She will be able to take care of her new cat. She will be loving—I can tell,” she said as if to assure me that the striped cat will be well cared for.
“I was thinking the same thing,” I said. “She will pet it and feed it and it will have a wonderful life in the warm apartment,” I said happily.
“Oh no,” Avery said worriedly, “Look at the description on this one, Mama. His name is Louie. It says his owner had to go into a retirement home, and Louie’s been depressed ever since.”
Our sensitive hearts broke at the same time.
Avery began talking to Louie in gentle whispers, “Are you sad, boy? I am so sorry your owner had to leave you. I bet your owner is sad too.”
I squatted down next to her. “Remember in Wonder when August feels like an outsider? And he hears the horrible things people things say about him?” I whispered. “I think after seeing what you did so bravely at the swim meet and the way you talked so kindly to the special lady that you would speak up … that you would say, ‘That’s not okay.’ And then you might say to the hurt person, “Don’t listen to them. You have special gifts they can’t see. But I see them.”
My child smiled widely as if she heard every word I said and was letting it sink in. She then leaned in close to the cage. “Listen, Mama. Louie is purring,” she squeezed her fingers in as far as they would go, “He will make a great pet.”
Thank you, God. I thought. Thank you for teachers who dedicate their lives to asking important questions. Thank you for coaches who put their hands on shivering shoulders and say, “I believe you can.” Thank you for sensitive hearts that reach through cages to touch broken-hearted beings and see something worth saving.
Might we all be as brave.
Might we all be as accepting.
Might we all admit we’re scared but try anyway.
Might we all listen kindly to those who repeat their stories.
Might we all look into depressed eyes and see the value within.
Might we all admit our faults but love ourselves anyway.
Might we all look for the Augusts of the world and open our circle and let them in.
Might we all frequently ask ourselves, “What kind of person am I?” and then be the person this world needs the most.
My friends, last week, I provided a 21st century lifeline for people to read or write to a child in their life. Over 100,000 people answered the call and my heart overflows with gratitude to all who participated or shared the message. I have heard from many people whose children asked them to “read it again” … children who cried deep tears of relief upon hearing those words … and teen boys who wrote a thank you note back because they could not respond without crying. Thank you to the person who cut up the paragraphs and asked if she could post them around the walls of a high school. Thank you to the woman who said, “I am wondering how I can get my mom to read this to me?” She reminded us that there is no age limit on words of love and acceptance. The 21st century lifeline is found in my second book, HANDS FREE LIFE, along with many practical ways we can provide our loved ones with internal protection in a world of distraction, pressure, and excess.
If you are interested in any of the cats in the photos below or featured in this post, feel free to message me or go to this link: PetSmart adoption. There are thousands of beautiful animals in your area waiting for a forever home. And if you choose to adopt one, please write and tell Avery & me. We would love to read a story with a happy ending. This community gives me hope. Thank you for being part of The Hands Free Revolution.