STAMFORD – Dina Zuckerberg loves talking to kids. She talks about how she enjoys skiing and playing piano and doing just about anything else she sets her mind to. Just like the rest of us – and despite the fact that the now adult woman was born with a cleft lip, severe hearing loss and one blind eye.
Dina Zuckerberg loves talking to kids – and on Wednesday, Jan. 31 she did just that when she spoke to 5th and 6th graders at Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford – bringing with her a message of kindness, compassion and hope.
“I was teased as a child. I was told I had ‘cooties’ and kids wouldn’t touch me unless they had a ‘cooties shot,” Zuckerberg, who serves as director of family programs for myFace, a New York nonprofit that works to transform the lives of patients with facial disfigurement and offers support to their families, told the Bi-Cultural students. Still, she said, “I never let it hold me back.”
“It isn’t an issue of bullying,” said Zuckerberg. “it is an issue of being ignored.”
“Sometimes I would sit alone on the school bus or in the lunchroom. I was picked last for sports. I remember it until this day,” she said. “But I remember other times – and they were far fewer – when someone would play with me or sit with me.”
To encourage students to look beyond the superficial differences that separate us in or-der to discover the person within, Zuckerberg and myFace community relations manager Vara Eastmen led a discussion that focused on the book Wonder by R.J. Palicios, which the students had read as part of the school’s Language Arts curriculum and that has since been made into a feature film. Wonder is the story of Auggie, who was born with a facial disfigurement condition called Treacher Collins Syndrome.
To drive home her point, she shared a heart-felt and often humorous letter from 11-year-old Nathaniel, a “real-life Auggie” who wrote to classmates before entering a new school. In his letter, Nathaniel told students that despite the things that made him “dif-ferent” – such as the tracheotomy in his throat, his unusual face, and the 54 surgeries he had undergone over the course of his lifetime to counter the effects of Treacher Col-lins Syndrome – “I am totally normal! I am seriously smart. I love pizza and meatballs and spaghetti.”
“Kids like me sometimes have a hard time at school,” he wrote. “Because I look so dif-ferent, kids stare and say mean things sometimes. If you wouldn’t mind, please don’t do that. It makes me sad and I’d much rather have fun with you than be sad.”
The message is simple, Zuckerberg and Eastman told students: Choose kindness.
“Wonder teaches us to choose kindness,” Zuckerberg said. “What does that mean? It means we get to choose how to react to people who look different. We know you will react – but you can choose how to react. You can choose kindness.”
In response to a question from a student about what more they can do to help, Zucker-berg said, “Be an ‘upstander.’ It’s easy to be a bystander – to choose not to do anything to make something better. But an ‘upstander’ sees something happening and does something to make it right. If you see someone sitting alone in the lunchroom, sit with them. There are lots of ways to be an upstander not only in school but at home and in the community as well.”
Following their presentation, students bombarded Zuckerberg and Eastman with questions and comments. Then, the two women went off to take a look at 6th-grader Nily Genger’s locker which is painted with a Wonder theme. (All student lockers are painted with different book themes.) Like all the 5th- and 6th-grade students, Nily had read the book and loved it.
“It’s really inspiring,” she said. “It showed how nice people can be and inspired me to treat people that might be different nicer. Now I know how people might feel that are dif-ferent than others.”