Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right using of strength. He or she is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own
I feel like the Grinch. Or, at least, I felt like the Grinch. It seems as though everywhere I turn, people are talking about how powerful it was for them to see the recently released “Wonder.” In almost all instances, I’ve heard or read about the many times viewers “teared up” or were all-out bawling. One friend saw it twice, many insisted it be mandatory viewing for school-aged children, and I….well….I thought it was a well-told story that was really about anyone.
Based on the book by the same name, Wonder tells the story of August “Auggie” Pullman, a young boy who has a significant facial deformity as a result of an unlikely genetic mutation. After years of home-schooling to keep him safe physically (he was medically frail as a young child) and emotionally, his parents (played by Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) decided that middle school is a good time to throw Auggie in to the proverbial waters that he may learn to swim. What ensues is really quite predictable as far as story lines go: the other kids are hesitant, then mean, then accepting, then peer-pressure make some of the accepting ones say or do a few more mean things. Auggie suffers through but eventually processes all of this with the help and patience of his family as well as one or two ‘Real Friends’, a watershed moment, and we all live happily ever after.
I don’t watch movies. I rarely have the time, energy, or attention span to dedicate to that particular activity. But when EVERYONE was saying that this film was championing the conversation about inclusion, I knew I had to watch. As a vocal advocate for inclusion, I had to be in the know. What did it take to bring diversity and inclusion to the fore? What is the secret to the success of this movie?
So I watched it. And I was thoroughly and remarkable unimpressed. Disheartened, even.
The whole movie reads like a veritable carbon copy of dozens before it. Further, in a subplot (spoiler alert), we find Miranda, Auggie’s sister Via’s former best friend, forfeiting her lead role in the school play to give Via, her understudy, a chance to steal the show. Fact is, however, that it seems Miranda could have really used this big night. She’s got her own problems, but she gave a great opportunity to Auggie’s sister: the overwhelmed relative of the boy who is different. It’s almost as if inclusion requires sacrifice for the unfortunate other who deserves more just by virtue of the fact that he or she is different…..even at the expense of someone else’s equally legitimate need. That’s exclusion; not inclusion!
And then I got to the end.
The last three and a half minutes of the film made everything else unique. They actually put it all in perspective and I hope that the messages in those last few minutes inform the viewer’s take on inclusion more than and even instead of anything else that we watched.
There are, always have been and always will be people who are different than the norm: taller, shorter, fatter, thinner, smarter, and less smart. There will be people who are missing one or more limbs and there may be people who have additional limbs. There will be people who look just like us but do not function in the same way: some use wheelchairs or canes to walk, others may use a service animal and/or a cane to help them to “see.” Some require hearing devices and others may avoid (or should avoid) unusually loud or crowded events due to their sensory processing issues. If Auggie’s story is so meaningful to so many, it makes me wonder why they haven’t yet acknowledged that diversity in population is as normal as it is in a dozen Dunkin Donuts. Of course the kid belongs in school if his behavior and cognitive skills are appropriate for his academic setting. So what if he looks different?
One character suggests that the other fifth-graders are “too young to deal with something like this.” The only reason differences are something to “deal with” is because we spend too much time highlighting them (“make sure you are nice to that boy,” or “maybe you could invite that boy over for a playdate,” et al). If the story was limited to the standard layout I mentioned earlier, the overwhelming response to it would be, in my eyes, a stain our so-called inclusive society. That bullying is still a thing is, in and of itself, a testament to our educational failures at home and at school. But let’s be honest: we wouldn’t do that. So the message doesn’t lie in the no-bullying campaign. We already know not to tell people to die. We would be appalled (unlike Julian’s mother in the movie) if any of our children removed a different-looking classmate’s picture from the class photo or if our child told his classmate to “go kill yourself.” So while we would never tolerate some of the bad behaviors shown in the movie, we might very well celebrate some of the good ones: befriending the underdog is heralded as some sort of angelic decision informed by a heightened sense of giving and sensitivity rather than one of de-riguer justice. This is the right thing to do and, perhaps more importantly, this demographic is just another pool of potential friends, teachers, and mentors. From this perspective, I was bored by the movie and disheartened by the global celebration.
And then, like I said, I got to the end.
It is graduation and Auggie is awarded a prestigious medal. His principal, Mr. Tushman, reads a passage written by the school’s namesake which describes real strength: “Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right using of strength. He or she is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.” As the principal is reading these words, we see flashbacks to several scenes throughout the movie when Auggie, seemingly the passive character, has inspired others to stand up for what is right.
The film ends with a soliloquy by Auggie in which he wonders amid the clapping and a standing ovation: “All I did was get through fifth grade just like everyone else here….then again, maybe that’s kinda the point. Maybe the truth is I’m really not so ordinary. Maybe if we knew what other people were thinking, we’d know that no one is ordinary and….we all deserve a standing ovation at least once in our lives. My friends do…. My teachers do… My sister does…. My dad does….. My mom does….”
Auggie takes us out with words his teacher taught the class: “Be kind. For everyone is fighting a hard battle.” He adds: “And if you really want to see what people are, all you have to do is look.”
Wonder is not about disability, or being special, or being different. It is not about inclusion at all. Wonder is about taking every single person at face-value. If that is a lesson that had to be taught by a boy with a facial deformity, so be it. But let’s not limit it to those who are different. Let’s learn from the strength of Auggie’s heart and those uplifted by it to see each person as a courageous warrior engaged in personal battles about which we know nothing and let’s step beyond acceptance into the powerful world of understanding and support.