My daughter takes guitar lessons at a groovy little music shop by the beach. Every one of the teachers there is mellow and kind. She’s getting really good. I’m incredibly jealous. Every 3-4 months, they put together a student/teacher concert and perform at the café next door. The teachers accompany the kids. It’s by far my favorite child centered activity. I get to watch my daughter play guitar and sing. I get to watch other super talented kids play various instruments and sing. I get to sit among other proud families, and they keep the kitchen and bar open so people bring us drinks and food! I don’t know, call me crazy, but watching soccer in the scorching heat and listening to lunatic parents yell at their kids doesn’t really compare. Plus this café has this fab brie dip that comes in a bread bowl with veggies. My other daughter and I have little sword fights with the carrot sticks as we try to get the most cheese.
The music school divides the concert into a 4:00 hour and a 5:00 hour so that tables can be cleared out and families can get seats to watch their kids. Last time we got there a little early and caught the tail end of the first set of kids. On stage was a little boy that I had briefly seen before in between lessons next door. He has what I am assuming is muscular dystrophy or a paralysis of some kind—no movement in legs or arms. He is in a wheelchair, obviously. He’s probably 10 or 11. He was singing one of my favorite songs: Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes. It is a hard rocking song. My daughter was singing Rose Garden by Lynn Anderson as a point of comparison. He had a full band of teachers backing him—lead guitar, bass, and drums. He started out tentatively, a little slow, but after a while he really got into it and just let his voice go. It’s an angry song, and as far as I’m concerned the kid has every right to be angry; but the main line of the chorus “a seven nation army couldn’t hold me back” seemed pretty apropos. This kid rocked the house. I was floored. It was one of those complicated moments—part guilt because I am so often stressed and worried about my younger daughter and I thought to myself, Jesus, it could be a hell of a lot worse. But then I thought, this kid has a great attitude…how did he do that? How did his parents do that?
We’ve got one kid who does well in school and one that does not. Actually, the big one does pretty well at most things that she tries and she does everything—sports, music, horses, academics, theatre. I’m super proud of her. She’s a great kid. I can’t imagine that it’s been easy being her little sister—not only does the little one get dragged around to watch her do all these activities but then she has to listen to other parents and teachers rave about her sister.
My little one has found the one thing that her big sister is not interested in and that’s her thing now—all things beauty: hair, make-up, clothes etc. We have renamed her bedroom Salon Mango. (Mango is her nickname.) She has far more make-up than I do. She has curlers and flat irons and crimpers and dryers. She has a full manicure/pedicure kit. She will give you a full on make-over if you are willing. If there are no takers, she’ll make herself over or strap one of her American Girl dolls into the chair and work on her. She plays music while she works. Sometimes she watches videos on the i-pad of special hair curling techniques and make up application tips. She is so into it and I’m fostering it too. Quite frankly, I wish she could just start Beauty School in the 5th grade because I’m tired of watching her struggle. I’m tired of dragging her to Sylvan Learning Center 3 times a week—not because it bothers me, but because I think it’s got to be such a bummer for her—the grind of constantly trying to keep up academically at a really hard school.
She’s different. She learns differently, and maybe she needs to be in a school that respects that difference. I don’t know if that school exists. I’ve even fantasized about starting some far out charter school for these kids—not hard-core special needs but not in “the box” that private school administrations seem to have a hard time thinking outside of.
The Junkyard Wonders is a group of kids relegated to the “junkyard”—basically a special education classroom within a public school. There is, of course, no uniformity in the junkyard. Other than the fact that all the kids feel like misfits, they couldn’t be more different, more unique. The narrator has dyslexia. One child won’t speak. Another has a growth disease and is abnormally tall for his age.
Though Trisha, the narrator, is initially dismayed to find herself in a special classroom again, she eventually realizes that every one of these kids is brilliant—each possessing a unique talent that their quirky and kind teacher helps them to discover and foster. Mrs. Peterson helps them to believe in themselves and their dreams—she exposes them to all the wondrous possibilities life offers them. She helps them ignore the taunts from the school bully. She allows them to realize their dreams though they may seem wild and crazy and fantastic and silly.
The story is true—based on Polacco’s childhood. It is an honest and heart wrenching story with a beautiful ending. In an epilogue of sorts, Polacco tells us what became of the rest of the Junkyard Wonders—their amazing success stories, and it’s hard not to think that this one teacher was a big part of that. This story is for parents, kids, teachers and students. It absolutely caused me to stop and consider the power we have as parents and teachers. We can help our children believe in themselves and blaze their own wondrous trails. And conversely, as grown-ups we can easily and unknowingly stymie a dream. Our children are all wonders—all different, all special, all needy. We have a tremendous gift and a tremendous responsibility to do right by them.