Touched by the kindness of Wonder
Updated: Jun 8, 2019
Aina was born with a cleft palate. In 2017 she met RJ Palacio, the author of the bestselling novel (and blockbuster movie) Wonder. Her mom G. Olivella shares with us the speech she wrote, in the name of the Catalan Cleft Association, to raise awareness of people with cleft palate and to thank RJ Palacio for helping to create the worldwide movement “CHOOSE KIND”. Aina is an artist and the illustrator of all the drawings in this article.
(Cleft palate is an opening or split in the roof of the mouth that occurs when the tissue doesn’t fuse together during development in the womb)
When you have a child with a very visible facial difference, the explanations begin even before bottles and diapers. First you receive a prenatal diagnosis, during birth in some cases, or at the time you go through with an adoption. After finding out about something that, often you didn’t even know existed, the task to make other people (in the immediate family, extended family, friends and colleagues at work) to understand begins. To answer questions like: will the baby be able to eat? Will she be handicapped? Will she look normal after surgery? Will you have to remain in hospital, when will she get it fixed? Only those who have been there know the amount of energy it takes.
With the little boy or girl at home, the family quickly gets used to the look of the child. In fact, parents, grandparents, siblings, everyone thinks she is so beautiful, who cares if the mouth and nose are the same hole in the middle of the face. It's like a three-dimensional smile, and you find out she somehow manages to eat, you go to see doctors, you bite the bullet when they operate on her, and you see how your little one grows cheerful and happy, feeling loved and thinking she is the cutest child on earth, because that is what she sees reflected in the eyes of those who love her.
But children and families do not live in a bubble. They leave their homes and familiar surroundings to go on vacation, to go to the mall, to the park, to the clinic. Little babies grow, and they first go to kindergarten, then elementary school, then high school.
In what might be called the outside world, most people do not dare to ask, but they stare, with some curiosity, with a mixture of concern and distress. You might find your kid pointed at, "mom, look at that girl!", comments in low voices, or an awkward smile if by chance you catch them staring. Because you are thinking about a thousand things and most times you don’t realize anything happened; until you see your child looking at the floor. Or she pulls your shirt and says “mom, can we go now please, I want to go", or you see that she starts covering her mouth with her hand, or puts the hair on her face. The truth is that you do not know what to say to them. Some days, you are not in a pedagogical mood and you just want to send them somewhere. Other times, you would prefer to be asked, and have the chance to explain it normally.
When it comes to school, and although the majority of teachers do not know much about the condition, in most cases the first years go by with few incidents. Things change a lot in high school. The naïve curiosity of younger children, often becomes insults and the type of behavior we all more or less define as bullying, or cyberbullying.
It's too many people to educate for one child, too many people for a family, it’s even too much for a family association like ours that, whenever it has the chance, tries to raise awareness of facial clefts. We try to talk about it so people know that it is a very common birth condition that requires a long and complex treatment, with lots of surgery, but that results are very good. It's like climbing a very high mountain, and we thought we had to do it alone, only with the support of other families and, to some extent, medical teams. It felt like we hardly existed, because no one ever talked about these kids, in the media, in books, in movies, on TV shows. Until we met August. Most people in the association read the book "Wonder" in one go, amazed and unbelieving at the same time. My daughter read it when she was about eleven years old and I think for the first time she felt reflected in a fictional character. It's been a few years and a few million copies sold since that moment. "Wonder" has even become a mandatory (recommended) reading in many Catalan high schools, and the movement that emerged from the saga -CHOOSE KIND- has turned the book into a phenomenon beyond literature.
"Wonder" has achieved what we could not even have dreamed of, educating millions of people. Many boys and girls now understand that the problem is not the child who has the nose more crushed, a scar in the mouth, speaks a little funny or is missing teeth, but the intolerant look of some people, a look that shouts out loud “you are not normal”. It has taught many people that friendship can overcome insurmountable obstacles. That we have the choice to be kind to that child, when you can see from a mile away that she is having a hard time in class, the cafeteria or the playground. So thanks to RJ Palacio for bringing our voice and our message to so many people.
And to teachers and educational officials who are with us, as mother of two girls in 9th grade, I would like to say that there is a long way to go and much work to do in schools.
I'd like to say some last few words to RJ Palacio. Thank you for raising a voice for all the kids that for any reason look different, and every day have to struggle with the narrow minds, sometimes cruelty, of other youngsters and adults. This book has meant a lot to many families and young readers. Now kids like my daughter can feel better about themselves, because Auggie is so cool you'd want to be just like him.
Here you can find more information about clefts: