I’m an elementary school teacher. It’s a good job, I know, and one that is valued by a lot of members of society, even if the government tries its damnedest to make us think otherwise. I spend the day entrusted with the care of other peoples’ children, and at night, I have my own two kids. I try to keep my two worlds separate – no work comes home if I can help it, and my family life is kept out of my classroom. That isn’t always easy, especially when I have a rough night with a lot of wake ups, but generally, I’ve been successful in separating the two halves. For all my students know, I could have been a model in a previous life (I was, you know).
For perhaps the first time, I’m allowing the line between home and work to blur. I’ve started reading R.J. Palacio’s now-famous teen novel Wonder to my class. I don’t know why I waited until now to start, but now feels like the right time. My students are loving it. They ride the same waves of emotion and anger as me, and I think it’s genuine. We’re still fairly early in the book, but their hearts are already breaking for Auggie as he starts at a school for the first time. They’re cheering for his new friends, and the anger is palpable in the classroom when someone makes fun of his facial difference.
I’ve had to choke back tears a few times already. I haven’t let them know yet just how personal this story is to me. It’s amazing how much of a parallel I can draw between our lives and the book. The same worries. The same thoughts. The same guilt and sadness. The same small victories.
At some point – maybe before we finish the book, maybe afterwards – I’m going to bring Marshall with me. As much empathy as they have for Auggie, and as amazing as our conversations and discussions have been, I want to put a face to the story for them. I want them to know how much it means to me that they care about treating everyone with dignity and respect, no matter the differences. In this small way, maybe one day they’ll stop someone from teasing a classmate who is different, or they’ll tell a friend about their experience meeting someone with a craniofacial syndrome. Maybe this is the one thing they take with them from our year together.
With March Break upon us, I’ve been reading ahead so that I can think about how I want to introduce them to Marshall, why I want to do this, and where to go with it after they’ve met him. I have to be careful where I read the book, because my fists clench, I weep out of frustration and fear, and I often close my eyes to thank Auggie’s friends for being his friends. For those of you reading this blog and following Marshall’s life, Wonder gives a surprisingly accurate glimpse into the lives of families with children who have a facial difference. Do yourself a favour – actually, do us a favour – and read Wonder. It’s beautiful.
The people I held dearest in my heart have always been my grandparents. As a child, I didn’t realize just how much I loved them, but once I hit my teenage years and I became intolerable just about anywhere else, their home was always a safe place for me to go and let my guard down. When I was away for three years living in Vancouver, I missed them more than anyone else, and they were a major reason why I moved back to Toronto despite having started my teaching career on the other side of the country.
My fondest memories are of my grandmother cooking me incredible meals, and then sitting across from me watching me enjoy her work. If not for her, I might have been twenty pounds lighter with more moderate eating habits.
When Quinn was born, my heart burst with happiness to see them holding their great-grandson. I felt so fortunate to still have them around. Three years ago, when they moved back to Taiwan after spending the previous thirty-five years in Toronto, I sat Quinn in their arms and took photo after photo, aware of the fact that this might be the last time I would see them, and the last time my family would span four generations.
My dear grandmother passed away a year ago, and last month, my grandfather died just short of a full one hundred years of age. I never made it to Taiwan to see them after they moved back. It was always the cost, the time, the fact I had my own family to take care of now. It breaks my heart to know that Marshall never had the chance to lie in his great-grandparents’ arms, because if there’s one thing I can be sure of, it’s that they would have loved him unconditionally and would have looked past all of his differences without hesitation.
At night – sometimes ten times a night now that his teeth are starting to come in – when I go into his room to comfort Marshall, give him a bottle, or pat his bum, I whisper to him about my PoPo, his great-grandmother. I run my fingers through his curly hair and tell him PoPo would have loved him, would be proud of him, and would look after him. I am about as staunchly atheist as can be, but the urge to hold on to her and feel her around me makes me wonder sometimes if maybe she is in some afterlife looking down on Marshall and Quinn with her usual smile and carefree laugh.