“Look at the cripple.”
That quote was one of the earliest that stood out to author Robert Hoge as a boy entering primary school for the first time in his native Australia, as he explained to Carver Elementary School students last Friday. Hoge had entered school with two prosthetic legs and a surgically reconstructed face that included a nose made from two of the toes from his right foot.
“Doctors never quite fixed my big ears, but that’s OK,” Hoge quipped while speaking to the students. “I had a bit of an idea of what I looked like before I went to school, but it was when I went to school that I realized just how different I looked.”
Hoge’s novel, “Ugly,” chronicles and illustrates the bulk of Hoge’s experience growing up looking different and, by some of his peers’ estimates, ugly. His visit to Carver coincides with the school’s theme of “It’s OK To Be Different” this year.
“He brought, I think, the firsthand presentation and primary experience of his childhood,” Principal Michael Lin said. “There was compassion, I noticed, among the students. We have a different theme every year, but the overarching theme is compassion. Compassion is always surrounding character education and citizens.”
As Hoge explained to students, he was born with a baseball-sized tumor on his forehead and nose, which had caused his eyes to be spread out much further than normal. His left leg was around half-length and his right leg not quite full length, and both with feet that had improperly developed. His mother was initially apprehensive about bringing him home from the hospital, but Hoge said his four older siblings ruled they wanted their baby brother home.
“Maybe peer pressure is a good thing sometimes,” joked Hoge, who was visiting area schools to promote his book and give motivational speeches.
His tumor had been removed early on, but it was a few years into his life when Hoge went under the knife to reconstruct part of his face (including moving his eye sockets closer together) and amputate portions of each of his legs. Given the chance to undergo additional surgery as a teenager, Hoge ultimately decided he wasn’t going to have any more procedures done.
“I’ve stayed true to that so far,” he said.
Hoge’s appearance earned a multitude of nicknames courtesy of his peers growing up, including toothpick legs, flat nose, Pinocchio (“Which never really made sense to me,” he said), Go Go Gadget Rob, ugly face, Transformer (“Which I thought was pretty cool”), stumpy and, his least favorite, toe nose.
Hoge admitted to acting out as a teenager, once reacting to a classmate who had made fun of him by drawing a caricature of him that exaggerated his nose and leaving it on his desk. That stunt earned him a trip to the assistant principal’s office a week later.
“It was then that I realized that just because I was different, it didn’t give me the right to make fun of other kids who were different,” Hoge told students. “When I look around this room, I see a lot of different faces from a lot of different backgrounds, but, I bet there are a lot of other things that make you all who you are.
“[The way I look] is not the only part of life,” he added. “I like writing. I like traveling. I like taking pictures and posting them on Instagram. I like playing PlayStation.”
After the talk, Hoge signed copies of “Ugly” that Carver students had bought ahead of time. Lin said many of the students had already had read the book at the encouragement of their teachers.
“The librarians had been planning this for about six months,” Lin said. “It worked out beautifully.”