What I wanted was to go to school, but only if I could be like every other kid going to school. Have lots of friends and hang out after school and stuff like that. (1.Why I Didn't Go To School.3)
For ten-year-old August Pullman, it turns out that going to school is totally doable—being like everyone else, on the other hand, is another matter. So this is Auggie's big struggle: how to live a normal life while looking the way he does.
Auggie knows he's a challenge to look at—"I know I'm weird-looking, take a look, I don't bite" (1.Wake Me Up When September Ends.4)—but he wishes kids would just get over it already. The staring and whispering reminds him over and over again how he's not normal. It's demoralizing, and distracts him from the business of just going through his normal, ordinary school day.
Auggie wishes lots of things, like:
And when he visits Beecher Prep for the first time, he wishes even harder that he didn't have to meet those kids outside Mr. Tushman's office. But to be accepted by anyone at all, Auggie is going to have to meet them first.
The "normal, dumb kid stuff" that Auggie refers to is usually stares and whispers, but also includes screams, gasps, and gulps. Understandably, ten years of this kind of feedback has made Auggie pretty shy about meeting new people. When he meets Mr. Tushman, for example, he mumbles, and looks directly at Mr. Tushman's red Adidas—so when Auggie mentions Charlotte's bright green crocs soon afterward, we begin to wonder whether he has difficulty making eye contact (it's either that or a shoe fetish).
Auggie has developed some workarounds to protect himself from the looks—and the look-aways. He explains:
One of the reasons I grew my hair long last year was that I like how my bangs cover my eyes: it helps me block out the things I don't want to see. (1.Jack Will, Julian, and Charlotte.22)
And a few years before the bangs, there was the astronaut helmet, which Auggie wore "everywhere he went. To the playground. To the supermarket. To pick Via up from school. Even in the middle of summer, though it was so hot my face would sweat" (1.Costumes.3). Auggie hides his face to hide from the pain of people's reactions. But unfortunately, this is a tactic he has to leave behind in childhood—it's just not going to work, in either middle school or later on in life.
(Pro tip: Unless you're interviewing with NASA, showing up for a job interview in a space helmet probably won't go over too well, no matter how good your reason for wearing it.)
Auggie also confesses to "a bad habit of mumbling" (1.Paging Mr. Tushman.10). And he is indeed so quiet that the first kids he meets at his new school ask him if he can talk. Auggie's first big push toward growth comes when Jack Will tells him, "Julian's a jerk, […], but dude, you're gonna have to talk" (1.The Performance Space.38).
In short, Auggie needs to improve his hairstyle, eye contact, and audible speaking if he's going to navigate middle school with any success. Another way to think about this is that Auggie is going to have to stop hiding.
Auggie adapts pretty quickly to being seen and heard on a regular basis. But how does he manage to go on, day after day, while most kids in the fifth grade still treat him as an untouchable source of the Plague?
Auggie's friendships with Jack and Summer save him from total isolation. Having someone to laugh himself silly with and someone to play foursquare with at lunch with gives Auggie strength to tolerate the weirdness he gets from the other kids at school.
Auggie also draws strength from his family. As his parents are persuading him to start school, Auggie starts to shut down emotionally:
"I don't want to go to school," I answered, folding my arms. (1.Driving.35).
Nothing says shutting down emotionally quite like crossing your arms. But Auggie's parents gently build their argument and share some funny stories, until Auggie ends up admitting, "I smiled even though I didn't want to let them see me smile" (1.Driving.48). When he is scared and hurting, his parents use humor to help him get into a better frame of mind—and it seems to work pretty darn well. Plus, they always make it clear that they're on his team.
When Jack's painful betrayal has Auggie swearing he'll never return to school, his sister Via pushes the exact right button—his desire to be ordinary—to turn him around. She says:
"Now, unless you want to be treated like a baby the rest of your life, or like a kid with special needs, you just have to suck it up and go." (2.Time to Think.18)
Via pulls a tough-love move here. She's protective of Auggie, but maybe not quite as protective as Mom and Dad—which is good, because her words bust him out of his self-pity, and that's what he needs to continue to grow.
When it comes to friends and family, it's all about quality over quantity. And lucky for Auggie, he's got a pretty great team as he makes his way through the fifth grade.