I was scrolling through my newsfeed recently and caught an article about gymnast Gabby Douglas. She’s a beautiful example to so many young women in our world—at twenty-years-old, she’s barely out of her teens, yet she’s an Olympic hero. Which means she’s in the limelight. This is a cause for celebration, but it’s also a moment to take cover, because people facing that much publicity will oftentimes also be hit with a wave of judgment and scrutiny. I won’t even get into the comments I’ve read about her physical appearance, how so many people have suggested that she change aspects of her beautiful self. That part is so crazy, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the haters getting worked up over Gabby’s stance on the podium as she stood with her teammates to accept the gold medal in the 2016 all-around competition. But I was surprised. Shocked, even. All of this makes me wonder who we have become as a society, why so many of us are so quick to judge.
Gabby might not have been smiling through every moment of the National Anthem, and she may not have stood at attention with her hand on her heart for the duration, but that young lady deserves respect and honor during one of the greatest moments of her lifetime. None of us—not one—know what was going on in her mind as she stood up on that podium. She was probably exhausted. She was likely overwhelmed. She may have been thinking of someone she’d lost, wishing they were there to see her shine. Her mind was probably in a million different places as she stood alongside her teammates. And none of us will ever understand. We are walking our own individual paths, different from that of Gabby Douglas, and we all need to show some compassion, some loving kindness, and give it a rest.
This is a motto that I’ve tried to live by for years now. I’m human, after all. I judge, too. At times, it’s a gut-level reaction. If I like something, I label it good. If I don’t, it’s bad. The thing about this, though, is that most of us don’t like things that we fear. And we often fear things simply because we don’t fully understand them. This can cause unrest and friction where peace and harmony might exist if only there were a more mindful approach. If those haters in the Twittersphere had calmed their itchy fingers long enough to think—really think—about what it might feel like for Gabby Douglas to stand up on that podium, to consider her youth as well as all that she had gone through to get to that moment, they might have experienced the appropriate reverence and awe.
This line of thinking helped drive the plotline and character development in my latest novel, A Million Times Goodnight. I wanted to showcase a character who was the target of hatred within his community, a character who had been shunned for something only he truly understands, someone who would push my main character to her limits and cause her to look at the world from a whole new perspective.
Hadley Miller’s best friend Penny was killed in a tragic accident just one year ago. On the anniversary of Penny’s death, Hadley goes to The Witches’ Tower to visit Penny’s memorial, and she runs into Josh Lane. Josh is an outcast, shunned by all for his role in Penny’s death. He was the only one present the night she died, which means he’s the only who really knows what happened. Yet everyone blames him. It’s the easiest choice, after all, a nice, tidy ending to a horrific event. Except that nothing’s ever that easy. Josh has secrets. And the story of Penny’s death has more layers than anyone could possibly imagine. As the book progresses, Hadley is forced to learn the true story, as well as face the emotions that arise when she realizes the part she played in the rejection Josh has faced since that fateful night.
So many books offer this type of twist, one in which a reader believes they understand a character, but soon learn they had only been scratching the surface, that there are hidden truths that explain and motivate everything a character thinks, says, and does—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I think of Hannah Baker in Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Kirby Matheson in Violent Ends by Shaun David Hutchinson (and a whole slew of other YA authors), Melinda Sordino in Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Margo Roth Spiegelman in Paper Towns by John Green, Auggie Pullman in Wonder by RJ Palacio, and so many others.
This is true in life as well. We only know a person as well as they allow us to know them. And then, we only know them through our own lens, using the one-of-a-kind perspective that we bring to the table based on the collective experiences we, as individuals, have amassed over the course of our lifetime. Something that I label as good could very well be viewed as bad in the eyes of many others. It’s this universal truth that so many of us forget as we walk through our days, interacting with others. Very few things are completely black or white, good or bad, right or wrong.
If it were possible for everyone’s life story to be known and understood in the flash of time that it takes for two people to lock eyes, there wouldn’t be so much hatred in the world. If we really took the time to know one another, we might just understand the things we fear, and then we might offer a compassionate hug instead of barbed words.
As teachers, we prepare many lessons. If we can add just one more—a life lesson about humanity—it would be amazingly powerful. It’s kinda sweet to think that this can be accomplished through the use of books. This won’t require slaving over a new unit, I promise. As you introduce your next class read, simply ask your students to keep track of the judgment they feel for each character. Then ask them to note how those judgments change as they move through the beginning, middle, and end of the book. How did those judgments change as they uncovered the truth of who those characters really are, deep down. Focus a discussion on what motivated the shift in perspective, and how this can be applied to the people who surround them in their every day lives. Through the analysis of a novel, using a fictional character to exemplify the layers that every human is made of, you might just help save a life, a community, or possibly, our world.