It is not through words, but rather through action that disciples of Christ make their mark on this world. That is among a host of poignant reasons why St. Mary’s of Hales Corners sixth-grade teacher Wendy Hornik chose to build a special project based on R. J. Palacio’s “Wonder.”
The New York Times bestseller recently made its way to the big screen, telling the inspiring story of fifth-grader August Pullman, who has face abnormalities.
“I felt this book would teach the students one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned,” said Hornik. “This book truly helps the students understand that beauty is not on the outside, but rather on the inside. Beautiful people are kind, compassionate, forgiving, and understanding and these qualities truly make our world a better place.”
Brought to life in Palacio’s novel, that lesson is of particular importance to Hornik for personal reasons.
“I had a grandma with neurofibromatosis (elephant man disease), and she looked very different than everyone else, but to me she was the most beautiful person in the world,” Hornik explained. “Not because of her appearance, but because she was the kindest, gentlest, most forgiving individual I had ever met.”
Each of these virtues were embraced by the class, who read the story of a boy with face abnormalities in “Wonder” and brought the lessons to life in the classroom.
Jennifer Marie Eggert, who is a pediatric speech and language pathologist at the Milwaukee Center for Independence, came to address the topic as well.
“My goal was to impress upon the students that we all have qualities that make us unique and different,” said Eggert, who encouraged the class not to equate difference with disability. “Individuals with disorders such as Down Syndrome or cerebral palsy may have even more that is unique or different about them, but this doesn’t mean they are disabled by their condition.”
The class also saw the movie, in addition to designing shirts for attributes they would try to demonstrate in a Christ-like fashion throughout their daily life.
Words like kindness, welcoming, and understanding completed messages on the shirts beginning with “I choose.” Each student wrote and presented a paper on his or her word choice to describe what it means personally.
“What was really interesting about the shirts, and the whole project in its entirety, was how well it opened up a dialogue for us to have these important conversations,” said Mary Pat Rick, a parent of one of Hornik’s students.
“I think a lot of parents may not be sure of how exactly to approach a topic of this nature, so (this project) really opened doors to have that dialogue with each other, as well as with their parents.”
As disciples of Christ, Hornik spoke of the project fondly afterward, happily surprised to see the result of those conversations become part of daily life in her classroom.
“We should all be more kind and not hurt each other’s feelings,” said Hana Smith, a student in Hornik’s class, who chose the word understanding. “The book makes you want to be a good person. If we all worked to understand how others feel, the world would be a better place.”
The desire to leave the world someday in a better state than they entered it was a relatively common takeaway for the students.
“This project taught me to never judge people by what they look like,” said Brayden Sylvester. “After this project, I try not to judge people, because they may be struggling and we just don’t know it.”
“I learned that you should respect everyone even if they don’t like you,” added Ethan Dudor. “If you respect them, they’ll respect you back. If someone is being mean to me, I don’t fire back. I walk it off and come back later to talk it through.”
Start to finish, Hornik said the goal of the project was to not only focus on the literature, but on becoming a disciple of Christ.
“The students understood that they can make the world a better place just by being kind, humble, friendly, loving, compassionate, or humorous,” she said.