Movie Review: ‘Wonder’ (2017)

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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.

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Barbarians: who knew?

What does a teacher do when a student calls another a name that is just plain wrong?

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.

Barbarians
The Barbarians. https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/416794140495615038/

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.

Scandinavia at the time of Beowulf.
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. 

Two-sday Surprises.

Sometimes, a small surprise can mean a whole lot more than its face value might suggest.

This morning didn’t seem any different than most when I left the house to head to work, but it proved to hold two lovely surprises.

The first surprise came in the form of a shop assistant who remembered me as her teacher from a number of years ago, and happily recalled the things she had studied and learned with me. An adult now, and with a different hair colour, I had not recognised her, but she knew me straight away.

It was nice to hear that she thought the books we read and the lessons we drew from them were valuable, and that history classes were interesting. It was wonderful to see that she had grown up into a confident, friendly and polite young woman with a lovely personality.

Of all the fond memories she recalled, though, one in particular had a profound effect on me: “You were the one teacher I ever had who showed me that it was okay to just be me, because that’s who I was meant to be. It’s something I have never forgotten.”

Wow! What a privilege to hear a former student say those words. I have struggled for many years with self acceptance, and as a teen I knew full well the agony of not fitting in with a particular crowd. Even then, I had the strength of will to resist peer pressure and not buy into many of the pitfalls that offered themselves to me at bargain prices and opportune moments. But that didn’t mean I was free of the wish to be someone or somewhere else – a desire that has recurred several times since.

Yet, somehow along the way, I managed to communicate something valuable about self acceptance to at least one teen in a similar situation.

I wonder if that knowledge would appease or satisfy those who think I push too many boundaries. Being part of a fairly conservative school, church and family, I take both pleasure and pride in not exactly looking conservative. I don’t intentionally break the rules, but I don’t mind testing their limits. My opinions often differ, and my willingness to assert them can make others uncomfortable. I don’t see that as a problem, though. There is merit in challenging people to see different perspectives and to accept differences. I’d like to think that people might become so used to my differences that I will need to think of something new to do to keep them on their toes.

My second surprise was a note on my desk from ex-students who had a reunion on Saturday night. I attended the reunion: it was a lovely evening of catching up and reminiscing. I didn’t realise, though, that they had left me a love letter on their tour of the school. How gorgeous that they still know how to make their English teacher happy and proud.

Teachers, eh?

Just now I was in my local Woolworths store on my way to work. 

The cashier was chatty.

“Much on for the day?”

“On my way to work.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a teacher.”

“Oh. And only on your way to work now?”

“I work part-time.”

“Teachers, eh?”

Stunned silence. I looked at her pointedly. 

Then I said, “What does THAT mean?”

She didn’t reply. 

So I continued: “Whatever it meant, you’re probably wrong.”

I really wanted to tell her that she probably makes almost as much per hour as I do, and she didn’t need a university education to achieve that. 

I wanted to tell her that I only work part time because my health issues mean I can’t work full time.

I wanted to tell her that teachers do as many hours outside the classroom as they do in it, and that “all those holidays” usually get eaten up by planning, preparation and a pile of marking. 

And I wanted to tell her that assuming something about what a person does, whether they’re a teacher or a checkout chick, is not okay. 

I didn’t, though. Ijust took my bag of shopping and left. 

Great start to my day. Thanks, lady. 

There’s no business like show business!

It’s wonderful to be able to honestly say that the show was spectacular.

Every year, this week is one of the busiest of my teaching year. It’s right up there with report writing in terms of stress, but it’s much more enjoyable.

It’s Production Week.
I’m the director/producer of my school’s musical each year, and this is the week where we hit the stage and everyone is wowed by the students’ performances.

The weeks leading up to the show have been demanding. There has been fear, elation, exhaustion, laryngitis, delight, and excitement in fairly equal proportions. Even so, there has been an overriding confidence – at least, most of the time – that the show would be great.

In every show we do, the kids are always amazing, and I’m always proud.
But during the first performance of ‘Les Miserables – School Edition’ last Friday night, I was so proud that I cried. For someone who doesn’t cry much, that says a lot.

It’s wonderful to be able to honestly say that the show was spectacular.

In saying that, I don’t mean to brag. This has been a group effort by singers, actors, orchestra, sound and lighting crew, set construction teams, backstage crew, parents sewing costumes, hair & makeup teams, vocal coaches, musical director and myself. A show like this doesn’t happen without every part of the machine running.

Most of you reading this won’t get a chance to see the show, so here’s a little article from today’s Warrnambool Standard, complete with a totally-unrehearsed-for video that shows you how talented, and how delightfully funny, my students are.

It’s no wonder I’m proud. They’re fabulous.

That’s an A+, right there.

One of my students has quoted ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and Johnny Cash’s ‘Man In Black’ in a piece of writing exploring how people encounter and respond to conflict. 

I think I’ve died and gone to Teacher Heaven. 

A+. 

That’s New. 

So, today I’ve walked into my classroom to be greeted  by a student with “Happy B-dizzle!”

“Sorrypardonwhat?” I asked.

“Happy B-dizzle!” She repeated.

“Is that even a thing?” I wondered aloud. 

“It is now!” asserted another student. 
You know, it’s a very caring student that gives her English teacher a brand-newish word for her birthday. 

So… Happy B-dizzle to me, I guess.

What I learned In Class This Morning.

They say life is a continual learning experience.

This morning, I walked into my Y12 classroom, where the heater had been on long enough to make the room too warm for me. I pulled my scarf off, not roughly, but vigorously enough for the clasp on my necklace came undone. I looked down just in time to see my pendant disappearing into my cleavage. 

Awkward. 

Instead of just leaving it there and retrieving it later, I started laughing.
Uncontrollably.
Of course I did. Why not draw more attention to myself, after all?

My students watched on, having no idea what had caused my outburst. Then one of the saw the chain on the desk and caught on. 

“Weren’t you just wearing that, Miss?”

“Yes. Yes, I was.”

“So… Where’s the thing that’s usually on the chain?”

“Well…” I said, “A funny thing happened when I took off my scarf. This chain came undone, and…” 

The look of familiarity with my predicament dawned on the face of every girl in the room. The boys, however, had become intently studious and we’re doing all they could do disengage from the conversation. The young man who started the conversation was clearly regretting that he had asked that first question. 

So I stood up, turned my back to the class, and jiggled a little. My pendant fell to the floor, I picked it up, replaced it on the chain, and put my necklace on again. I turned around again and proceeded with the lesson while we all pretended nothing had happened.

The Shakespeare Omelette!

I’ve just self-published my first play!

Cover HD

‘The Shakespeare Omelette’ is a one act play in which four teens enact parts of different Shakespeare plays while waiting for their teacher. It has been road-tested on my drama class, who greatly enjoyed rehearsing and performing the play. The audience also seemed to enjoy it.

The process of self-publication was new to me, so I hope I got it right! If you have any problems, please leave a comment here and I’ll try to sort things.

You can click here to buy it as a softcover book or PDF via blurb.com
It is my hope that it will soon be available in the iBooks store.

 

 

Wasn’t Expecting That. 

I just asked a Year 10 student to turn his music off while he was working on a history presentation that is due tomorrow. 

He said, “I bet you don’t even know that song.”

“I might,” I answered. “What song was it?”

“The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton. 

Whoa. 

That stopped me.  This kid must have digitized his grandfather’s old record collection.

“I do, actually.”

Then he sang, “We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’…”

And I sang, “There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago!”

He thought that was pretty cool, I guess. Then I asked him how much he wanted me to tell him about the War of 1812.

It’s incredible how suddenly kids can become motivated to work on the assignment that is due tomorrow. I wish I knew how that happened.