Mr. Browne’s Precepts

In my novel Wonder, a teacher named Mr. Browne begins his first day of teaching English to his 5th grade class with a lesson on precepts. “Does anyone know what a precept is?” he asks the class, and after some discussion, he informs the kids that precepts are “rules about really important things.”  In a nutshell, precepts are words to live by. You can find a precept in a book you’re reading, in a song you’ve heard, or in a fortune cookie. It doesn’t matter where, but if a phrase rings true to you, and it can help guide you in making a decision, then make it your own personal precept.

Mr. Browne then tells his class that he’s going to be giving them a precept every month until the end of the year, and every month they’re going to discuss the precept and write an essay about what it means to them. Mr. Browne’s Precept for the month if September is: “If you have the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”  It’s a quote by Dr. Wayne Dyer, and Auggie Pullman thinks it’s a nice quote.

That chapter in the book ends there, but if I had extended it I could easily imagine how the rest of the discussion would have played out. Mr. Browne would start by asking what the students thought the precept meant. Did they like the precept? Did it apply to how they lived their lives? Then he might have started talking about the obvious benefits of the precept. If everyone adopted that quote as his or her own personal precept, he would tell them, wouldn’t the world be a better place? Imagine if nations adopted it as a mandate, wouldn’t there be fewer conflicts? Some of the kids would agree, adding that if nations chose to be kind “instead of right,” it might even end world hunger. Other kids would argue that being wealthy doesn’t have anything to do with being right, and there might even be a little sidebar conversation about whether might really does make right.

From there the discussion would move to Mr. Browne asking the students how hard it would be for them to choose to back down from an argument with their moms or dads or brothers or sisters, if they knew they were right and the other person was wrong? Would they give in just to let the other person save face? Why?

It’s not so simple a thing to choose to be kind, Mr. Browne would then tell them. It’s one thing to back down from an argument with someone you love, or a friend, because you don’t see the point in “winning” the argument at the cost of your friend’s feelings. But what if you believe in something that no one else believes in? What if you’re the only one who knows you’re right? Should you back down, just to be kind? What if you were Galileo, and you knew you were right about the planets revolving around the sun even though the rest of the world thought you were crazy—would you back down? What if you were living in the 1950s and you were the only one in your town to believe that black people should have the same rights as white people—would you back down, just to be polite? What if you were standing up for something you believed in—would you really want to back down, just for the sake of kindness?

All this would lead a lot of the kids to question whether the precept is good, after all. At which point Mr. Browne would tell them that maybe the most important word in the precept isn’t the word “kind” or the word “right.” Maybe the most important word in that whole sentence is the word “choose.” As with all things in life, he would tell them, every choice you make needs to be weighed. Every decision needs to be evaluated. All that precept is telling you, Mr. Browne would finish telling them, is that it’s better to choose to be kind than to choose to be right. But the real point is that you have the choice. Do you choose to be kind?

And that would have been the end of that introduction to precepts—at least in my book. The truth is, I started “collecting” precepts when I was a teenager. I didn’t really call them precepts at the time: I just wrote down things I liked: phrases, words, inspirational quotes. They always got me thinking. And I always thought that if I had been a teacher, I would have used precepts as a way of inspiring some real independent thinking in my students—thinking that wasn’t just about what the kids read or what formula was the right one to use. But thinking about character, about the dramas played out in the lunchroom everyday, about the impact of what we say and do in other people’s lives.

For a list of all of Mr. Browne’s Precepts and where they came from, log onto my website at It’s still a work in progress, but I’m working away at it, and will have it functional by the pub date of Wonder, which is February 14th.  And if you have your own personal precept you’d like to share with me, please email me at or post on my facebook page I’ll be listing personal precepts on my website in coming weeks.

R.J. Palacio

R.J. lives in NYC with her husband, two sons, and two dogs. For many years, she was an art director and book jacket designer, designing covers for countless well-known and not so well-known writers in every genre of fiction and nonfiction.


Mr. Schu is premering the Wonder trailer today on Watch.Connect.Read.

Mr. Sharp has posted an interview with R.J. on sharpread.


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