Taming Brutes

I’ve seen stories tame brutes. Take, for example, the year the entire sixth grade read Wonder, the story of Auggie, who starts a new school wanting nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid. His classmates, though, can’t get passed his face.

“I won’t describe what I look like,” Auggie says in the book, “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”

As they read, the students grew to like Auggie, who is funny and loves his Xbox, his dog, and Star Wars, even wearing a braid in the back of his head like a Jedi. They read with a marked grimness as the class bully turns the entire class against Auggie, inventing a game called The Plague, in which kids became infected if they touch him. The sixth graders talked about Auggie’s dogged courage in showing up day after day and his pluck in cutting his hair short, revealing even more of his face. And more than one kid hid tears when, at the end of the year, Auggie receives a standing ovation as he is given an award for courage and kindness.

The reading of Wonder actually changed the lunch room. For the rest of that year, bullies toned down and fewer kids ate lunch alone.

Centuries before this peaceable time in the middle school and on the other side of the world, a tale was told about a king bully. This king in Arabian Nights discovers his wife’s infidelity and decides all women are alike. So he seeks revenge, marrying a succession of virgins, only to execute each new bride the next morning. This continues until a heroine steps up with a plan. To save the lives of other women, she volunteers to become the next bride. But on her wedding night, she begins a story, which she leaves unfinished.

To hear the rest of the story, the king delays her execution. Night after night the heroine works her plan—continuing the story of the night before and then starting a new one. And the time comes when the king finds he no longer wants to kill. Like the author of Wonder, this heroine storyteller has tamed a brute.

And the longer I taught, the more I turned from scolding and expounding to telling stories to bullies.

“Let me tell you a story,” I’d say.

And they’d actually look at me and listen.

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