As part of a monthly program on kindness and differences at Ridgebury Elementary School, the MyFace facial disfigurement organization made a presentation to all the students in conjunction with the book and movie Wonder on Feb. 23.

MyFace was founded in 1951 by reconstructive plastic surgeons in New York City. These surgeons were concerned about the mental and physical health of more than 600,000 Americans who have been diagnosed with the condition. Every hour, another person in the United States is born with a craniofacial condition where a part of the face is too large, too small, or nonexistent.

To help the Ridgebury students better understand the disease, Dina Zuckerberg, who is afflicted with craniofacial disfiguration, told her story of being born with multiple deformities, her numerous surgeries, her early life of alienation, and her road to self-confidence and success.   She also showed the students that there other young people, like Augie in Wonder, who are dealing with the deformities successfully by making friends and showing the world their multiple talents.

To help the younger children understand craniofacial deformities, Zuckerberg had a student crumple up a piece of paper and stamp on it with their feet. She then had the student smooth the paper, telling him that the crumpled paper was like the face before surgeries and that the smoothed out paper — although not perfect — was certainly easier to live with after the plastic surgeries.  

‘Always be kind’

Since people with craniofacial conditions, as well as other disabilities, are often bullied, the MyFace people discussed with students their role in helping these special students and the benefits that they can expect from befriending people who are different from themselves.   MyFace facilitators then gave the students actual scenarios (seeing a student who is always alone or having students be mean to him) and had them respond as to how they should handle the situation. In every case, the MyFace leaders came back to the saying, “stop bullying, express empathy, and always be kind.”

After talking to some third and fifth graders, at the conclusion of the presentation, it became evident that Ridgebury was doing a good job with spreading the words of respect and kindness.    The students are being taught to be upstanders (who speak up against bullies) rather than bystanders (who stand by and don’t help a student who is being attacked).  

The Ridgebury students also know the chain of command when it comes to getting help for a bullied student. They know when to turn to the teacher, who has a series of strategies to help both the attacked student and the bully. The third graders agreed that there is no real serious bully problem in their school. They said that from time to time, there may be a problem, but it is not allowed to continue.  

Fifth graders said they felt there were a few students who can be unkind, but the defense of the bully is usually that they were only kidding. This defense is not accepted by faculty or other students; therefore, the problem, is usually short-lived.

Book and movie

When it came to a discussion of the book Wonder, there was agreement with both groups that this was probably the best movie and book they have been exposed to recently. They said they didn’t remember other chapter books like Wonder that helped them to understand that what you look like on the outside has nothing to do with the inside and what you are truly like as a person.

From the book and movie, the students also learned that it is their role not only to be accepting, and to befriend people who are different, but to stand up for these students and help them gain acceptance.

Two fifth graders mentioned that because of all the focus in the school on differences and respect for those unlike yourself, students were more accepting than some of their parents.    One girl said that parents should be required to see the movie so that everyone would be on common ground.

“We are all wonders,” no matter who we are or what we look like, is the message of the book and movie Wonder, as well as a theme for Ridgebury and the MyFace organization.