For August and the other kids at Beecher Prep, status and popularity are of the utmost importance. Wonder is peppered with kids' observations about their social structure, how status and hierarchy function in their world at school, and what the consequences of being popular or unpopular are on the student body. In particular, Wonder suggests that as intoxicating as popularity might be for August and his classmates, the social structure that allows some students to be popular requires those students to bully their less popular classmates to maintain their position.
August was no stranger to bullying prior to starting at Beecher Prep. He and other students recount times when kids teased him at the park or in other public places, events that happened with unfortunate regularity. However, August recognizes immediately that being in school drastically changes the tenor of the bullying. Essentially, he recognizes that there's a major difference between bullying at the park (where the participants, and therefore the social structure, are constantly changing) and bullying at school, where the players remain constant and must defend their reputations daily against the same "threats." This results in a system where there's a great deal of pressure to constantly do the "right" thing in order to be perceived as more popular and climb the social ladder. Julian, for example, emerges early on as the leader of the popular kids, and he maintains his position by creating an environment where it's in his classmates' best interests to get as close to him as possible by ostracizing those he deems unpopular. This results in widespread bullying against August and anyone who associates with him, as well as against the two Maxes—whose only crime seems to be unashamed love of the game Dungeons and Dragons. In this way, August and the Maxes become stepping-stones for others to use to climb to the top.
On Halloween, August chooses to forego his carefully made Jango Fett costume in favor of going as the Bleeding Scream. In homeroom, when Jack gets roped into a mean-spirited conversation with Julian about August, Jack feels safe saying horrible things about August in front of the Bleeding Scream, not knowing that August is behind the mask and can hear every mean word Jack says about him. Later, in Jack's narration, he explains that he only said what he said because he "felt stupid" in front of Julian after spending so much time with August. He insists he never would've knowingly said anything terrible in front of August, showing clearly that there's social currency to be had in putting others down in front of the right people.
The events that transpire on the class camping trip and in the months leading up to it suggest that there are two remedies for bullying that can dismantle a toxic social hierarchy from within. Though Julian persists in trying to make August's life miserable by turning most other boys in the fifth-grade class against him, this eventually proves untenable—after a few months, August and Jack observe that most of their classmates are no longer interested in participating in Julian's crusade. As a result, most of their classmates return to behaving civilly towards August and Jack. Then, when Julian and his parents decide that he won't attend the class camping trip, it effectively removes the ringleader and main proponent of the bullying from the social group—with amazingly positive results. Miles, Henry, and Amos, who once followed Julian blindly and bullied August, finally choose to stand up to others who try to bully August. This is something they can do only in Julian's absence, which illustrates just how toxic one individual can be to a group. It also shows that people are far more likely to stand up to bullying when they're not going to be bullied themselves for doing so.
Taken together, Wonder's exploration of bullying and social structure illustrates clearly how toxic a social structure can be when it's predicated on putting down others in order to elevate oneself. The camaraderie and joy that August and his classmates show at their graduation reception (where Julian is, again, notably absent) suggests that it is far more fulfilling for all involved to participate in a social structure based instead on kindness, community, and lifting up others.
Status and Bullying ThemeTracker
Status and Bullying Quotes in Wonder
What's cool about really little kids is that they don't say stuff to try to hurt your feelings, even though sometimes they do say stuff that hurts your feelings. But they don't actually know what they're saying. Big kids, though: they know what they're saying.
Henry still couldn't get his lock to open […] He got really annoyed when I was able to open mine on the first try. The funny thing is, if he hadn't put the backpack between us, I most definitely would have offered to help him.
Maybe no one got the Darth Sidious thing, and maybe Julian didn't mean anything at all. But in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Darth Sidious's face gets burned […] His skin gets all shriveled up and his whole face just kind of melts.
I peeked at Julian and he was looking at me. Yeah, he knew what he was saying.
"Okay, that's fair," I said. "But it's not a contest about whose days suck the most, Auggie. The point is we all have to put up with the bad days. Now, unless you want to be treated like a baby the rest of your life, or like a kid with special needs, you just have to suck it up and go."
How I found out about this is that Maya Markowitz told me that the reason she won't play Four Square with us at recess is that she doesn't want to catch the Plague. I was like, "What's the Plague?" And she told me. I told Maya I thought it was really dumb and she agreed, but she still wouldn't touch a ball that August just touched, not if she could help it.
And the truth is, though nobody's that obvious about it: nobody wants to hang out with him. Everyone's way too hung up on being in the popular group, and he's just as far from the popular group as you can get. But now I can hang out with anyone I want. If I wanted to be in the popular group, I could totally be in the popular group.
Before she went out, she looked left and right outside the door to make sure no one saw her leaving. I guess even though she was neutral, she didn't want to be seen with me.
We knew we were being mean, but it was easier to ice her out if we pretended she had done something to us. The truth is she hadn't changed at all: we had. We'd become these other people, and she was still the person she'd always been. That annoyed me so much and I didn't know why.
"Kinder than is necessary," he repeated. "What a marvelous line, isn't it? Kinder than is necessary. Because it's not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed. Why I love that line, that concept, is that it reminds me that we carry with us, as human beings, not just the capacity to be kind, but the very choice of kindness."
"There are always going to be jerks in the world, Auggie," she said, looking at me. "But I really believe, and Daddy really believes, that there are more good people on this earth than bad people, and the good people watch out for each other and take care of each other. Just like Jack was there for you. And Amos. And those other kids."