Today I accompanied my school’s Middle Year students on a trip to the cinema to see ‘Wonder’, a new film based on the bestselling book by the same name about a boy who has facial differences.Jacob Tremblay plays August Pullman, alongside Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson who play his parents. The stage is set when the Pullmans decide that Auggie should start 5th Grade in a mainstream school, having been homeschooled by his mother until then. Mandy Patinkin plays a very wise and empathetic school Principal, Mr Tushman.
What a sad world we live in when a kid gets less attention walking through the city or a park wearing a space helmet than he does when wearing his own face. It’s human nature, I know, but that doesn’t make it okay. This film challenges that “default setting” in a very compelling way.
Auggie’s teacher, Mr Brown, challenges the kids to ask themselves: What sort of person am I?
This movie challenges every audience member to ask themselves the same question. How do I deal with difference? What does my face tell them? What kind of friend am I? What monuments do my deeds leave?
The audience feels sympathetic to Auggie long before they see his face. When he says, “I know I’ll never be an ordinary kid ordinary kids don’t make others run away from playgrounds” it’s like a punch in the stomach that leaves you winded.
As the movie rolls on, we also see that the “regular” kids like Auggie’s sister, Via, have their own challenges with acceptance and friendship, even without the extra challenges that some kids face. Over and over, this film reminds me again just how cruel kids— and people in general— can be, in so many ways.
The journey of discovering who is real and who is not is often painful and traumatic. Together, Auggie and Via realise that they are each other’s best friends, and lean to rely on each other for the support and love that they need to get through each day.
The development of genuine friendship reminds us that looking past the surface to really see someone is what makes a crucial difference to anyone, but especially those who are so aware of that surface. There is also a painful reminder that even the nice kids can make mistakes when they focus on appearances instead of who someone really is.
This movie delivers so many powerful lessons about accepting others and even more about accepting ourselves. In both cases, we need to learn to live according to the precept established by Mr Brown in Auggie’s first lesson in 5th Grade: “When you have.a choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”
It sounds simple— perhaps too simple. But is it?
The hardest part may be in finding the willingness to step out of our comfort zones and open our own minds to each other and the possibilities that our differences bring.
Everyone old enough to understand the difference between kindness and judgement should see this film.
Yesterday one of my students called another a ‘Philistine’. I know he meant to suggest that his friend was uncultured and ignorant, and that is what many understand the word to mean.
So, being the time-and-knowledge-generous history nerd that I am, I took a break from our study of World War I and explained to my class that what he meant to suggest is not what the Philistines were at all.
The Philistines were a cultured and wealthy civilisation that lived in Canaan between the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the biblical kingdoms of Judah and Israel. They lived in and between five cities: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath. The same region bears the name ‘Palestine’ today – a name derived from the Philistine civilisation. The ancient Philistines enjoyed enough military prowess to hold their own against Lebanon, Syria and Egypt at different times, fighting with spears, straight swords and shields. When not fighting wars, they lived in elaborate buildings and made their own pottery.
It doesn’t really seem consistent with the idea of ignorance, does it?
Sadly, this is not the only case of such name-calling being so ironic.
Barbarian is another term which is used quite wrongly. It’s used to suggest that someone is wild or uncivilised. Historically, the Barbarians were any number of Germanic tribes that moved throughout Europe in what many refer to as ‘The Dark Ages’, even though they weren’t so dark at all.
Really, if you look at them, they don’t look so incredibly different from one another, nor from the folk our history books tell us were our own ancestors. It may surprise you to know that the Barbarian tribes included the Angles, Saxons and Picts who set up shop in Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire and eventually became some of the most devotedly civilised people on earth. The Gauls became the French, the Geats became the Swedes, and the Danes went on to give us Hamlet, pastries and an Australian princess. (Disclaimer: I don’t know if the part about the pastries is true, but they must be called danishes for a reason… right?)
The Vandals, for example, may have left a trail of destruction in Gaul and Iberia, but they only made a bit of a mess of Carthage before taking it as their capital and making extensive renovations. As a military power, they had skill and knowledge – you’ve actually got to hand it to anyone who could not only withstand the power of the Roman Empire, but also hold their own in so many battles over such a long period. And when they weren’t busy fighting the Romans, they were highly cultured, enjoying music and poetry. They conducted a lot of industry and trade in their North African kingdom. It really was not about breaking or ruining stuff at all.
The Goths, oddly enough, did not sit around in dark clothes wearing black makeup. The name “Goth” was derived from ‘Geats’, the tribe famous for its honour and pride in the Anglo-Saxon legend of Beowulf, as told in the oldest English poem in existence.
Map Prepared by Louis Henwood for ‘The History of English’ podcast, episode 42
They actually had sophisticated architecture and beautiful mosaic art. They made and wore intricate gold jewellery. They were farmers, weavers, potters, blacksmiths. They followed intricate burial rites, making sure that the graves always pointed north.
Related to the Goths were the Visigoths, meaning “Goths of the west” who ruled Spain for a couple of centuries. They built churches that still stand today, decorated their buildings with intricate filigree art and stone arches. They were skillful metalworkers and jewellers.
It seems to me that we do history a disservice by misusing these terms in such a way. Connotations are not always the easiest things to track through history, but these seem quite unfair. I suspect that such practice grew out of the fear of anything or anyone different, foreign and/or pagan – a concept with which Western society is still painfully familiar.
By the end of all that, the kids’ eyes had glazed over a bit, and there was a fair bit of smiling and nodding going on. I don’t think they will be calling each other Philistines again, though. So… mission accomplished.
If you’d like to know more about Beowfulf and the Geats, you could listen to a fabulous episode from ‘The History of English’ podcast. It’s a great podcast, and if you’re interested in the development and history of the English language, or the relationships between language, people, and places, you should consider subscribing.
The Indie Author community is one of the most incredible groups of people I’ve ever had the privilege to be part of. Support, encouragement, commiseration and shared victories are the order of just about every day.
However, every now and then I stumble across a social media post that really disappoints me. Those posts fall into two groups.
1. Posts that rant at others for a perceived slight.
I’ve seen authors abusing people for not buying their books, not sharing their posts, or generally being less than 150% supportive.
How is this fair?
We’re writers. Most people have day jobs. Most people have families. Life is demanding. I don’t know anyone who can afford to be on social media 24/7, supporting others and buying six copies of every new release.
We cannot expect that all our friends and family are going to buy, read, and review our books. I can tell you from personal experience that this simply isn’t realistic. Shaming them on public media is hardly going to encourage them to change their ways.
2. Posts that demand people do something.
This morning I saw a “request for support” that was phrased as “do it now” and “I need this” and “you’ve been told, so do it”. There wasn’t a please or thank you in sight.
Am I likely to give my support? In all honesty, no. I scrolled past.
This is not my habit – anyone who knows me can affirm that I do everything I can to support my fellow Indies.
I felt belittled and taken for granted by that post. I don’t even talk to my dog like that.
It’s important that our public presence on social media is seasoned by good manners.
If we want to present ourselves as a public identity whose product – be it books, music, handcrafts, beauty products, or whatever – we want others to buy and enjoy, we have to make that engagement a positive thing, or it will never follow through.
I am in no way advocating being a doormat or accepting poor treatment. But that is not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about keeping ourselves nice.
There is no place for arrogance, selfish demands or rudeness. Nobody is doing anyone, including themselves, any favours by carrying on like that.
My final piece of advice is one I apply every day in both my professional lives: you’ll get a lot more with honey than you do with a stick.
When I was 20, I pledged to never buy another women’s magazine.
Even then I was frustrated by the unrealistic body image they consistently communicated to women. It wasn’t long before that extended to the “cool” publications like Cleo and Cosmo, which I had convinced myself were different because they provided helpful articles on makeup, health and other issues relevant to younger women.
Okay, so I was deluded about that, but it didn’t last long once I observed that these magazines also projected false and unrealistic body images that neither I, nor most of the young women I knew, could ever hope to meet.
For longer than anyone can remember, our western society has had an unhealthy fixation on looks. We’ve been getting it wrong since long before Henry VIII married Anne of Cleves based entirely on her portrait and promptly divorced her the minute he met her in person, citing as his reason the fact that she looked like a horse.
And it’s only getting worse. Chlidren as young as five or six are no strangers to the words “cute”, “handsome” and even “sexy”. Pre-teen kids have body image issues and the eating disorders that go with them. Peer pressure and bullying are daily realities in every school and friendship group that our kids belong to. Marketing is aimed at wearing the right clothes, having the right look, and doing what everyone else does. Social media can take those problems right into kids’ own homes. And it happens to boys every bit as much as it happens to girls.
When does a kid ever get a chance to be themselves?
All of this leads to one challenging question: How do we swim against the stream when the current is so strong?
My answer is that we need to invest differently in people. We need to model much more healthy and constructive behaviour, and encourage others to do the same.
Let me say straight up that I don’t have kids of my own. I have, however, been very active in helping a lot of friends and family raise theirs. Our house has, quite literally, been a second home for more than a handful of teenagers over the years. I’ve also been a teacher, youth leader and mentor for almost thirty years. It’s this accumulated experience upon which I base these comments.
I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does.
But I do have a few ideas about how we can start.
This is my starter list:
10 Ways We Can Change The World For Our Kids
Don’t put kids or other people down. Ever. I can’t stress this enough. Never tell kids, or anyone else, they are stupid, useless or worthless. Criticise a behaviour if you need to, but do not make it about the whole person.
Stop buying into what the media tell us is ideal. Choosing not to surround yourself and your kids with unattainable ideals helps to take your focus off how far short we fall. This decision had a significant effect in my own life, so I am speaking from experience here.
Stop commenting on how people look. Whether someone looks beautiful, tired, or exhausted, don’t say so. Don’t comment on whether someone has lost or gained weight – in this case especially, you can safely assume that they already know. Just don’t comment on anything external. Chances are, the less you comment on it, the less you will think about it. And the more you think and talk about those things, so will your kids.
Instead, comment on things that have intrinsic value. Statements such as “I love it when you smile like that!” or “You did such a good job of that! Well done” can make such a difference to someone because they emphasise one’s value rather than looks. Saying “I really appreciate your kindness” (or any other value) reinforces that behaviour as well as encouraging the person who hears it.
Discuss celebrities differently. Instead of saying “I wish I looked like that!”, discuss the positive qualities of a person or the character they portray. There will doubtless also be opportunities to discuss negative behaviours and messages. Be honest about the consequences those behaviours carry for real people, even if they’re made to look funny’ popular or “cool”.
Don’t comment on your kids’ or your own health, weight or fitness. Make an effort to do something about it instead of commenting on it. Model behaviours for your kids that help to establish habits that will help you as well as them – provide better food, go for a walk, go to the gym together or take up a hobby together. It doesn’t have to cost more to be better for you.
Discuss feelings and values in a positive and purposeful way. Not every feeling or experience shared will be positive, but honest discussion lets kids and young adults know it’s okay to not always feel great about things and teaches them ways to handle different emotions and experiences. This encourages self-awareness, but more importantly, it builds honest communication and relationship that both they and you will value enormously.
Make an investment of time, more than money, in people, especially in your kids. It won’t matter to kids what they have if they feel unloved or undervalued. Take an active interest in each one and find out what matters to them. Building a strong, loving relationship with your child is the best gift you can ever give them. It will bear fruit in every other relationship they have.
Celebrate worthwhile achievements. “You did it!” should be more valuable than “You’re so pretty!”
Be realistic and constructive about disappointments and failure. Make sure they know you care about their disappointment and hurt. Don’t tell them it doesn’t matter, because it does matter to them – at least for now. In time, they will be ready for you to help them see the bigger picture and refocus their efforts and priorities.
We can’t expect to change the whole world. However, we can influence the way they see themselves, and we can influence the way our own kids see, experience and respond to the world they live in.
I was motivated to write this post by an experience I had a few weeks ago.
I posted a question on a blog post by someone who presents himself as a successful and popular author. He probably is, but his response to my question was quite scathing. When I explained why I hadn’t read every blog post he had posted, he was so rude that I took screen shots. Of course, he had no idea that I took screenshots, but it made me feel better because I had evidence to support my increasing dislike for him and his condescending attitude. Who did he think he was, anyway?
(I’ve concealed his identity here because I don’t feel like getting sued or anything like that.)
At this point, I made a decision to never buy his books, nor to help promote or encourage him in any way. I suspect several others probably made the same decision. When a friend went to read the exchange between us, he had deleted the whole thing, so I am sure he realised it wasn’t a good look for him. I highly doubt that it might occur to him to apologise for his rudeness, but I will never know, because I had promptly unfollowed his blog, deleted him from my twitter feed and blocked him on all social media.
Sure, my question might not have been the brightest or best he’s ever read. Even so, his response was condescending and made me feel really low. Who needs that kind of negativity in their life? I certainly don’t.
As an author who uses social media to build a following and hopefully sell my books, I can confidently state this is the least desirable outcome from interacting with others.
There is a valuable lesson that, whatever our profession might be, we can all take from this: never, ever, be an asshat to someone on social media. It’s far too easy to damage a reputation or a brand that you’re trying to establish and promote.
The choice between being either the low point or a bright spot in someone’s day isn’t so complicated. If people ask a question about your book, your blog, or your dog’s hind leg, simply be thankful they are interested enough to ask. Engage with them. Being friendly doesn’t cost anything, nor does it mean you have to pledge eternal friendship.
You will walk away with your integrity and your potential readership intact, if not a little more loyal towards you. As a writer, you can’t put a price tag on that.
*My original working title for this post was, in fact, “Why One Should Never Be An Asshat On Social Media”. I tidied it up a little. You’re most welcome.
I side against prejudice, hatred, family violence, oppression and injustice.
Therefore, I will state quite openly that I do not endorse Trump as POTUS. At the same time, I do not endorse Madonna’s comments either. There are Australian politicians and various other public identities that I do not endorse, for exactly the same reasons.
If something I post offends you because you don’t agree politically, stop and think before you jump down my throat and give me grief about it.
Am I saying “I hate this person”? No.
I’ll be saying “I don’t like this action or these words”.
They’re very different things.
Chances are, if someone on the other “side” did or said that, you’d criticise them for it, too.
Consider that I will call *anyone* out on bullying, lying to the nation/world, or inciting mistrust, hatred and violence. I will not accept misogyny, sexism, sizeism, ageism or racism as “humour” or “lighthearted”.
Today, it might be someone you like. Tomorrow, it might be the person you don’t like.
Please, be very, very careful about what you defend. More importantly, please be careful about how you defend it.
A horrible chain of events occurred in Melbourne today. A man drove a car into a group of people, killing some and injuring others, including children. Some of the injured remain in a critical condition.
It wasn’t terrorism. Just an angry man in a car.
Funny, though. Nobody has mentioned his religion, and there have been no popular calls for his particular ethnic group to explain or apologise for his actions.
Nor should they be expected to. Ever.
It’s his responsibility, not theirs.
But you can bet your sweet patootie that it would be a different story if he were a Muslim or a recent immigrant from the Middle East.
We’re not judgemental, though. Nor racist. Mmmkay?
What part of “if you’re sick, stay home!” do people not understand?
After shaking my head at the lead story about two kids who have travelled internationally, gone shopping, and heaven knows what else for the past two weeks while they were highly contagious, I wrote this.
Look out, look out, the spots are about
Because some folks won’t immunise their kids,
But when the “did nots” find their kids have the spots
They’ll be sorry and wish that they did.
I’ve heard all the arguments against vaccination, and I simply do not believe them.
As someone with compromised immunity due to a chronic illness, I am certainly glad that my parents made me have that needle that made me squawk for two seconds as a child. After 29 years of teaching, it’s probably the reason I’m still alive.