Today I (finally) picked up a copy of Wonder by R.J. Palacio. There's been such a buzz about it online recently that I've been dying to get to a store and dive in. We've talked about it in class; the kids are super eager to read it and compare it to Out of my Mind. Because of all the hubbub surrounding it, I expected greatness. What I did not expect was to be pulled nearly 30 years into my past, sucking back tears within the first few chapters.
I begin each year with my new batch of fourth grade students the same way -- the story of my very own first day of fourth grade.
Beyond any other year in school, it's my most memorable first day. It stands out above the beginning of middle or high school, and is even more vividly stamped in my brain than the first day of school in Soesterberg, The Netherlands. And being in a brand new country was pretty impressive, so I think that speaks loudly about my 4th grade memories.
Fourth grade was a year of new things: new house, new school, new state (we had just moved from Florida to Nevada); oh yeah, and one other thing -- new face.
Perhaps I left that detail out. On our family road trip that lead us to my dad's new assignment at Nellis Air Force Base, we were in the type of wreck that leaves your car flipped over on the side of the highway, resembling a small burnt-up toaster.
Fortunately, we all lived through it.
Unfortunately, half my face tried to fall off in the process.
So I began my new school as a pale, sickly, stitched up, bald spotted (head injuries are the worst, man), fraidy cat with dark circles under my eyes. I was pretty much a fourth grade zombie. That might be a point in my favor today, but back then zombies weren't exactly in.
This is the image in my head on each first day of school with my own students: staring through the window on the classroom door; one hand poised to grab the doorknob and walk in, one foot ready to tear through the school and run all the way home.
I actually love sharing this story with my students, because I think it tells them a few things about me --
- I know what it feels like to be different.
- My first goal every year is to make sure everyone feels safe socially and emotionally. All that other crazy academic stuff will fall into place after that.
- I'm real.
They always respond the same way -- shocked that other kids were so mean to me, amazed that I look "normal" now, and ready to share their own scary school stories. It's a great way to start -- we get all the first day of school anxiety off our chest and happily move on.
It's an important story to share, and I'm glad there are authors like Sharon Draper and R.J. Palacio willing to write it all down. I've tinkered with my own kid-sized Frankenstein story through the years, told in various ways, wondering if it's a story worth finishing.
And I think the first few chapters of Wonder have given me my answer.