You Are Special
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Should the opinions of other people determine how we feel about ourselves?
The Wemmicks give each other either a gold star or a gray dot sticker. A Wemmick named Punchinello always tries his best to receive gold stars from the other Wemmicks but only receives gray dots for not doing well enough. One day he meets a Wemmick named Lucia who doesn’t have any gold stars or gray dots because they don’t stick to her. Punchinello doesn’t want any stickers on him either so Lucia tells him to visit their maker, Eli. Eli explains to Punchinello that if he is not bothered by what the other Wemmicks think then the stars and dots will not stick to him either.
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Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
You Are Special introduces the idea of what being special means and whether that matters.
The central issue in the story is about whether the opinions of other Wemmicks should determine how Punchinello feels about himself. He judges his own worth based on the opinions and judgments of others. The other Wemmicks always assess Punchinello’s worth using standards of excellence that are described in the book: being pretty; having smooth wood and fine paint; being talented; lifting things; jumping high; knowing big words; or singing songs. Having these qualities and talents are what the Wemmicks think deserve a gold star. Being special usually means being greater, better, or otherwise different than what is usual. We could also consider being special as the same thing as being unique. But are these the only traits that make someone special?
In the story, being special is defined by the woodcarver Eli as being made uniquely. Punchinello goes to Eli and discovers that he matters to Eli, because Eli made him and it wasn’t a mistake. Eli tells Punchinello, “The stickers only stick if they matter to you. The more you trust my love, the less you care about their stickers.” Punchinello doesn’t completely understand, but when a gray dot falls off of him at the end, we are to understand that the opinions of the other Wemmicks only stick to Punchinello if he truly cares what they think about him. The story defines “special” as caring about your own unique qualities and knowing that you matter instead of placing value in the judgments of others. It is important to realize that the opinions of others do not have to be the final word or decision of a matter such as whether someone is special or not. Do we have to decide for ourselves whose opinion is the best to listen to? These issues lead to the philosophical question of what it means to be special, unique, or authentic. Authenticity is characterization that is formed from undisputed origins and is being faithful to your own original self. In the context of the story, Punchinello is authentic to why he was made, and that he is not a mistake. He realizes that he is special just by being himself, and that his value and worth shouldn’t be shaped by the other Wemmicks.
Furthermore, as individuals, we should decide if we care what other people think of us and what those opinions will do to our self-worth and authenticity. Perhaps we shouldn’t listen to someone’s opinion if it negatively influences us. In that case, should we only listen to the opinions of people that are superior, wise, and older than us? These issues lead to the philosophical question of whether there is a need for individuals to be authentic. For our purposes, we use the philosophical term authenticity in place of using the term special with the children.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
Opinions About Others
“He deserves lots of dots, the wooden people would agree with one another. He’s not a good wooden person. After a while, Punchinello believed them. I’m not a good Wemmick, he would say.”
- At the beginning of the story, who does Punchinello look to in order to form his opinion about himself?
- Does Punchinello care what the other Wemmicks think about him?
“After a while Punchinello had so many dots that he didn’t want to go outside… In fact, he had so many gray dots that some people would come up to him and give him one for no reason at all.”
- Should we care about what other people think?
- Do you care what other people think about you?
- Can someone else decide whether or not you are special?
- Who determines what is authentic or special about other people?
- Can we decide for ourselves whether we are special or authentic?
Opinions of One-Self
“One day he met a Wemmick who was unlike any he’d ever met. She had no dots or stars. She was just wooden. Her name was Lucia.”
- Why don’t the gray dots or gold stars stick to Lucia?
- Who does Lucia look towards to determine whether she is authentic or special?
- Does Lucia care what the other Wemmicks think about her?
“That’s the way I want to be, thought Punchinello. I don’t want anyone’s marks.”
- Does Punchinello’s opinion of himself change by the end of the story?
- How does it change?
- Does anyone in the story only care about what they think of themselves?
“Looks like you’ve been given some bad marks. I didn’t mean to, Eli. I really tried hard. Oh, you don’t have to defend yourself to me, child. I don’t care what the other Wemmicks think.”
- How does Eli help Punchinello stop caring about what the other Wemmicks think?
- What does Eli tell Punchinello about the value of the stickers?
- Does Punchinello believe what Eli tells him? Does this cause him to change his opinion of his self-worth?
Authenticity and Being Special
“Who are they to give star or dots? They’re Wemmicks just like you. What they think doesn’t matter, Punchinello. All that matters is what I think. And I think you are pretty special.”
- Is Punchinello special or unique? Why?
- Is Punchinello being authentic to himself? How?
- Is Lucia special or unique? Why?
“Each Wemmick was different. Some had big noses, others had large eyes. Some were tall and others were short. Some wore hats, others wore coats. But all were made by the same carver and all lived in the village.”
- Is it important to be special or unique?
- Is it important to be an authentic person?
- Is it a good thing to be special and authentic?
“Some Wemmicks had stars all over them! Every time they got a star it made them feel so good! It made them want to do something else and get another star. Others, though could do little. They got dots.”
- In what way is it good to be special and authentic?
- Who should you listen to about whether or not you are special or authentic?
- How are you special?
- How are you authentic?
- Who gets to decide that you are being authentic?
Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Rose Levenson and Hadassa Mikalixen. Edited May 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.
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