MOORHEAD - Teacher Jennie MacFarlane says even as a fifth grader, Emily Paulson was a natural leader - both popular and positive.
"I remember Emily being so confident," says MacFarlane, who taught Paulson in 2001. "She wasn't afraid of anything. She had friends and was a good friend to others."
Now that natural leader has returned to her school days by guest speaking for MacFarlane's third grade class at S.G. Reinertsen Elementary School in Moorhead. Paulson, now a nurse at Sanford Health, came to talk about one of her favorite books, "Wonder," which premieres in theaters on Nov. 17. The book tells a fictional story of fifth grader Auggie Pullman who has craniofacial differences and how he adjusts to friendships and fitting in.
Paulson knows exactly what that's like. She was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a condition which affects the development of bones and tissues in the face. Paulson says she enjoys sharing her story and found the kids "engaged and excited" to hear what she had to say and look at the photos she brought.
"I love doing these presentations because I love showing others that being different is okay," Paulson says.
MacFarlane says having Paulson talk to her class provides an invaluable lesson - not only helping students see that people who are different can achieve anything (Paulson achieved her dream of becoming a nurse) but also giving perspective to what they've read in class.
"I thought it could help bring the book to life," MacFarlane says. "To see someone in their community that has gone through some of the same things Auggie has gone through - a real life person, not a character in a book - that's going help them connect."
MacFarlane says the anti-bullying themes in "Wonder" - including choosing to be kind and doing the right thing - are lessons every student should learn and take to heart.
"Luckily, I was never bullied in my life," Paulson says. "I was surrounded by the most amazing friends and family and still am."
Nonetheless, Paulson says she still likes to share with students the challenges she's overcome, like spending summer vacations getting surgeries - approximately 20. She showed the students her prosthetic ear and mentioned she has 400 pairs of earrings because she never had ears to wear them before.
But Paulson isn't just sharing her message with elementary students. Earlier this month, she spoke to 965 students at Moorhead's Horizon Middle School.
"The students were 100 percent in her pocket," says teacher Brian Cole, who invited Paulson to speak. "I hoped it would be impactful, but it was one of the most memorable experiences I've had as an educator. The most powerful thing she said was 'I love who I am. I wouldn't change a thing about how I look.' A few of the classes burst into spontaneous applause. I get tears in my eyes thinking about it."
Cole says they're always trying to improve the culture of kindness in the school and Paulson's presentation and "Wonder" help them do that. The day it premieres, the students will fill 20 school buses to attend the movie at West Acres Cinema. He says he doesn't just want this to be a morning off from school, but rather something with lasting impact.
"There are two parts to "Wonder" - the story of this remarkable young man who overcame his condition and fear and became a leader in the school," Cole says. "And there's the story of his classmates who had to make choices to embrace kindness and stand up for the little guy. It is our hope that students at Horizon will make similar choices to be kind at all times."
MacFarlane's elementary students will also attend "Wonder" as a class on an upcoming Saturday. She said after reading the book and hearing Paulson's presentation, she's had students and parents share with her how much they enjoyed the message of kindness, being confident in yourself and finding your own voice.
"I think they'll remember these experiences more than math or reading," MacFarlane says.