Sometimes we assume children will know and do the right thing. Sometimes we forget that if we don’t teach them what we believe is right, they may learn other lessons from the world around them.
It is a great disservice to our children that books and movies and television shows, and maybe even people in “real life,” are less and less about lessons of kindness and compassion and love.
But if we try, we can still find a way to share those important stories with our children. One way I learned was with the book, “The Hundred Dresses.”
This gentle narrative, written in 1944, tells the story of a little girl named Maddie whose friends make fun of a classmate who is very poor, has a funny name and lives in a rough part of town.
One day, Wanda Petronski surprises everyone by announcing that she has a hundred dresses at home. “All colors,” she says. “All lined up in my closet.” Nobody believes her; Wanda wears the same faded blue dress to school every day.
The girls laugh at Wanda and tease the lonely, quiet child without mercy. Maddie knows it is wrong. She never joins in the torment and aches to stand up to the careless cruelty demonstrated by her friends. But Maddie also wears hand-me-downs and fears the crowd would turn against her if she defended Wanda, so she remains silent.
Their teacher announces a drawing contest, which everyone is sure Peggy will win. Peggy is the most popular girl in the class, wears the most beautiful clothes, and is Maddie’s friend. She is also the main instigator of meanness toward Wanda. On the day of the contest, the children are amazed to find the walls of their classroom covered with drawings of dresses, beautiful dresses…all colors, all lined up.
But Wanda is not at school that day, and the children learn that the Petronski family has moved away to escape the taunts of their classmates and neighbors.
Now Maddie is overcome with anguish and regret. She wishes she had defended Wanda and promises herself she will never again stand by in silence when she sees someone being treated unfairly or unkindly. She longs to apologize to Wanda and is devastated to realize she will live forever with the regret of cowardice.
The story closes with an unexpected gesture of kindness and forgiveness, which reminds us that nobility of spirit transcends all barriers.
Although a simple children’s story, the lessons from this book have stayed with me from the time I first read it as a little girl.
Maybe it touched my heart because I talked funny and had a funny name and dressed funny.
Having moved from New York to Owensboro at age 8 when my parents divorced, I had an accent nobody could understand and nobody could pronounce “Keohane.” We brought only the few clothes my mother could afford to have shipped, and we gratefully and humbly accepted donations of clothes our classmates had outgrown.
That was the only charity we ever took. Otherwise, my mother supported us by working, as few mothers did back then—just one more thing that made us “different.” Momma protected us from any awareness of how precarious our situation really was, but she could not shield us from the taunts of other children.
We didn’t call it bullying back then. It was just kids being kids…and kids could be cruel. (Actually, so could some adults.)
I love that book, and have given copies to all my grandchildren. I wish I could give one to every child, with the prayer that its message might speak to every child—every Wanda, every Maddie, and yes, every Peggy.
As the years have gone by, I think of that story more and more often. I cannot go back in time to comfort little Wanda. Instead, I have deliberately embraced her spirit. In my imagination, I stand beside her with my arm around her shoulder, confronting the world with courage and strength as we face those who would attempt to diminish her—us—in order to make themselves feel bigger and better.
It is on behalf of every child who looks different, talks funny, has weird hair, crooked teeth, wears clothes that are too big or too small—it is for all of them, and for all of us, that I echo Maddie’s determination by saying, in my own way, “She was never going to stand by and say nothing again.”