Is ‘Wonder’ a Realistic Portrayal of Middle School?

“Is Wonder realistic?” I asked my son when we returned from seeing the movie last night. The two fourth grade boys and the two fifth grade girls who accompanied me had all read and loved the book on which the movie was based, but I wondered about what seemed like an extraordinarily happy ending.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, or don’t have kids in elementary school, Wonder is the story of a ten-year-old boy, Auggie Pullman, who suffers from mandibulofacial dysostosis, which results in severe facial defects. After having been homeschooled his whole life, his parents decide to send him to a private school called Beecher Prep. He is initially shunned by everyone, but by the end, well, everyone loves him. He wins an award from the school for “lifting up” all of his classmates and they give him, appropriately enough, a standing ovation.

“Not everyone would be friends with him,” my son tells me, if Auggie attended his school. “I can think of ten kids who would be nice to him.” But he’s not sure about the rest. In fact, as the movie suggests, Auggie doesn’t need everyone to be nice to him. He only needs, as his mother and his teacher tell him, to know “that you are not alone.”

Early in the movie, we see Auggie with three other children—Julian the spoiled mean rich kid, Charlotte the girl who is so self-absorbed she doesn’t really notice anyone else and Jack Will. It only takes one of them to stand up for Auggie. When school begins and Jack becomes his friend, Auggie is completely satisfied and happy. He wants someone to have light saber duels with and someone to play video games with. He does not need to be popular. Similarly, his sister Via is satisfied with having only one friend.

It’s true when those friends betray each of the Pullman children, they are out of luck. Except that they still have each other. Via tells Auggie that they are each other’s best friends right now. If there is an important lesson in this movie for kids as they enter middle school, it is not that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover—they’ve heard that one before and it is almost impossible for kids not to judge Auggie initially—but that all you need to be happy is one friend.

While many of our efforts to help kids in school focus on making them more accepted by everyone—fighting bias and telling kids not to prejudge—it’s possible that we should be doing more to help kids make friends. These are very different skills. And research suggests that one will not necessarily impact the other.

The other reason to enjoy Wonder—and the reason I suspect that so many kids do too—is the adults in the story. They are observant of children’s behavior without micromanaging their lives. Jack’s mother tells him that the principal has asked him to take Auggie around. She doesn’t make him do it but she persuades him. Auggie’s parents make the decision to send him to school even though they know that he could get his feelings hurt. The teacher does not punish the other kids in the class even when he realizes they are picking on Auggie because Auggie does not ask for his help. The principal of the school is probably the most surprising, though. Mr. Tushman does not kick Jack out for defending Auggie by slugging Julian. He knows enough to know what the kids in his charge are doing without having to have multiple conversations or meetings with their parents.

In an age where most adults will not give kids the space to work out any problems for themselves, the grown-ups in this movie are the real “wonder.”

Image: Lionsgate

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