Just say, “Hi.”
That was the theme of Michelle Reynolds’ 5th grade classroom in Chicago a few weeks ago. Michelle is my best friend and mother of my godson, Owen. Owen has significant cognitive and developmental delays and is the reason that I started working in Special Needs Photography.
It was in that classroom that I met Mary Cate, and her mother, Kerry.
And watched as the lives of all those in that room were changed… for the better.
It may sound like a grand assumption – but I truly believe that Kerry’s stories about Mary Cate touched every one of us in that room. The experience of meeting her will stay with us and hopefully guide our decisions in the future on how we treat others.
To backtrack, sometime in 2012, I read the book Wonder, by R.J. Palacio – and when I closed the cover on the last page, I knew that this powerful book could change people. Wonder is the story of a boy, Auggie, entering school for the first time – in 5th grade. He was born with a facial deformity and has been homeschooled until this point. The book chronicles his 5th grade year.
Shortly after I finished it, I called Michelle. I said “You have to read this book – it’s called Wonder, and it is about this boy who -”
She cut me off, “I already read it – and I’m going to teach it.”
And she did.
She developed a literature unit called “Choose Kind” and read several books (including Wonder) with the class on issues of diversity and acceptance. Earlier this year she read an article about Mary Cate and Kerry speaking at different classrooms that had read Wonder. Mary Cate has Apert Syndrome, which is a genetic disorder that results in abnormal development of the head, hands, and feet. Michelle reached out to Kerry and invited her to Oriole Park Elementary to speak to her class, and they accepted.
That’s how my eldest son and I ended up in a Chicago classroom in June.
Before Mary Cate and Kerry arrived, Mrs. Reynolds reviewed general guidelines with the class and set out the gifts for their guests.
Kerry began the presentation by showing a video of Mary Cate – and then started taking questions from the students. The students were incredibly respectful, and asked thoughtful questions. Kerry answered candidly, and Mary Cate charmed all of us.
As I sat there, all I could think of was how every classroom needed this. You can read all the books on diversity, acceptance, and love that you want, but everything changes when you actually meet someone in person and listen to their story.
Kerry and Michelle both talked at length to the class about approaching someone who might be different than you. Growing up, we’ve all been taught not to stare – but that isn’t necessarily the answer. The best thing to do is to just say “hi.”
At the end of the presentation, Michelle and some of the students presented gifts to Kerry. A reporter and photographer from the Chicago Tribune were there working on a story about Mary Cate and Kerry. (I’ll add a link when the story is published.)
On the ride home, my mind was racing with ideas on how to get Mary Cate’s story out – and how to get her to Wisconsin into my children’s school – and doing presentations at libraries – and community programs. But the fact of the matter is, Mary Cate can’t possibly visit every classroom in the Midwest. And as she grows older, she may not want to. But while there is only one Mary Cate and one Kerry – I know that there are other parents and children who are willing to be frank about their diagnosis or differences. In doing so, they will be showing others the importance of Choosing Kind. The point is, we need people in our lives that are different from us. We all need to practice the skill of just saying “Hi.”
To learn more about Mary Cate: