The kids are reading the book “Wonder,” which is about a child with a similar condition. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

The kids are reading the book “Wonder,” which is about a child with a similar condition. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Marysville alumna asks students to not judge others’ looks

The elementary students read ‘Wonder,’ about a boy who looks different — a story she empathizes with.

Abby Beauchamp is different. And she is the same. Either way, she wants what everyone wants: kindness.

That’s the message she delivered Friday at Hillcrest Elementary School in Lake Stevens. Students there are reading a book called “Wonder,” which has a character with a facial abnormality something like Beauchamp’s. And the kids are involved in an effort called Choose Kind, which is related to the book.

Beauchamp, a 24-year-old from Marysville, was born with a lymphatic malformation. The condition is a benign mass, often in the face and neck, resulting from irregular formation of the body’s lymph vessels.

For Beauchamp, it meant nearly 30 surgeries. They included two massive resection procedures that kept her at Seattle Children’s Hospital for months after her first birthday. It meant that until second grade Beauchamp breathed using a tracheostomy tube.

And it means that she looks different from most people. Her chin is larger than usual, although not as large as it was before extensive surgery. Her speech is affected, too, because the procedures left her with little of her tongue.

None of it held this intrepid young woman back. A 2011 graduate of Marysville Pilchuck High School, where she was on the golf team, Beauchamp earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology last year from Central Washington University. She still lives near the campus in Ellensburg, with her partner, Alanna Adria, and works as a manager at Jerrol’s, an office supply and book store.

Beauchamp’s appearance has always set her apart. In every way that matters, she is just like the rest of us. And she’d like to be treated that way, instead of being the object of stares or whispers.

“I love playing golf, reading, hanging out with friends, and swimming in my grandma’s pool,” she told students from three Hillcrest fifth-grade classes Friday. The kids, all readers of R.J. Palacio’s book “Wonder,” gathered in Rhelda Furnari’s fifth-grade classroom for a question-and-answer session with Beauchamp.

“What was school like?” a boy asked her.

“I didn’t like school, but now I love it,” Beauchamp told the kids, adding that as a schoolgirl she had no friends. “It was hard. Kids can be mean. They stare, and it hurts.”

She shared a memory of running for president of her class at Marysville’s Marshall Elementary School. After school on the day of her speech, her mom asked how it had gone. Beauchamp remembered her answer. “They laughed at me. They didn’t vote for me,” she said.

Hillcrest fifth-grade teacher Jessica Simonson asked her a question: “What do you wish those kids did differently?” Beauchamp answered, “I would hope the kids would just listen and be nice — just be nice.”

Then, students’ hands shot up. “I would clap and support you, and vote for you,” one boy said. And a girl added, “I wouldn’t judge you on your looks.”

After the fifth-grade gathering, Beauchamp spoke at an all-school assembly. Students surprised her with a copy of “Wonder,” which they had signed, and a Hillcrest Hawks sweatshirt.

“She didn’t have a good time in school. We want this to be her good memory of school,” said Bob Coleman, a math support teacher at Hillcrest.

Coleman, 52, is a family friend of Beauchamp’s. He went to Everett’s Cascade High School with her mother, Sarah Beauchamp. Through the years, their families have been close and have celebrated holidays together. Coleman knew Abby from the time she was born.

“I remember playing checkers at the hospital with Mr. Coleman,” Abby Beauchamp told the students.

Sarah Beauchamp and Abby’s grandmother, Dee Anderson, were both at Hillcrest to listen to her talk with kids. It was the first time she had spoken publicly about her condition, which none of her four siblings has.

Like the students, she is a fan of “Wonder.” The novel is centered around the character of 10-year-old August Pullman, born with mandibulofacial dysostosis or Treacher Collins syndrome. People with the condition have underdeveloped facial bones, often causing eyes that slant downward, a small jaw and chin, and a cleft palate.

“I can’t say enough good things about this story,” Beauchamp posted on her Facebook page. “I believe it’s going to start a movement for inclusiveness in the world. August Pullman and I have shared the same struggles and the same heartaches. Everyone needs to read this book.”

The plot has Auggie going to school for the first time after being home-schooled. “Wonder” has been made into a feature film, opening in mid-November, starring Julia Roberts as the boy’s mother.

In the classroom Friday, Coleman told fifth-graders that Hillcrest Principal Steve Burleigh has approved a field trip. They’ll be going to see “Wonder” at a movie preview before it opens next month.

Beauchamp still draws stares when she’s out shopping or walking down the street. It still hurts. She’d rather have people ask questions — politely.

“It’s OK to be curious. It’s OK to want to learn,” she said. “If they have the heart to ask, I will answer.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

Information about R.J. Palacio’s book “Wonder” and the Choose Kind effort is online at http://choosekind.tumblr.com.

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