A significant amount of time in my middle school health class was devoted to teaching students “how to smile.”
“Take two fingers. Place them on the corners of your mouth and slightly push upward” — those were our instructions.
Never mind we’d end up looking like evil, deranged videogame cartoons. At least we were smiling.
I’m still not entirely sure what the point of that exercise was. Maybe to encourage students to embrace happiness and dispel depression or just simply to get us smiling at one another. Whatever it was, I still had problems with the latter.
I was always one of those people who stared at the ground when they walked. With every step I memorized the cracks between the concrete slabs, the pattern of the hallway carpeting and the way the flecks in the linoleum seemed to dance with each other.
Meeting another person’s eyes as we passed each other was unheard of.
And that awkward side-step dance between myself and another person in a crowded passage was unbearable. I was always forced to raise my head in order to locate a swift exit from this agonizing social interaction.
A lot of us introverted, bookworms are like that, if for no other reason than our necks are stuck in the perpetual crane of literacy.
When I was 13 I read a book in which the character spoke of people-watching in her high school.
I was fascinated. Surely people aren’t that interesting.
Nevertheless, it intrigued me, and I slowly began looking up more when walking. As I passed between classes in overcrowded schools, down sidewalks and through shopping malls, I began to see people. I noticed how this person walked, the way those woman’s arms held packages and how students carried their books.
But I also saw unhappiness.
Many people seemed to be walking around in a daze of sadness and longing. It is a long-hardened axiom of urban and suburban living — the longing for human company we are afraid to let in.
Once, a particularly worn down and tired-looking boy was passing me in the hallway of my high school. His eyes registered nothing as he stared forlornly at the floor. About three feet away from each other, he suddenly looked up and met my eyes.
Some instinctual part of me suddenly kicked in and, unexpectedly on both parts, I smiled.
In the five seconds of time that passed with our next few steps his face registered both surprise and a pleasant lightening of his demeanor. A simple smile had lightened his troubled mood if only for those few seconds.
However, often a smile at a stranger can bring unwanted attention upon the person with the well-intentioned grin.
On the way home from the airport I boarded the shuttle to the Light Rail and smiled as other mass-transportation patrons boarded.
One man sat across from me on the shuttle, seeking my eyes through the whole ride. And after we all departed the shuttle, the man followed me and hounded me for my phone number until the train arrived. Six stops later he followed me off the train and two blocks to the ASU dorms.
All that from a smile.
I’ve had crude promises of “happiness” and “paradise” from scurvy men who mistake a friendly action of kindness as a come-on.
But I strongly believe these people are the exceptions. All of the lifted moods, the returned smiles and the changed days certainly outweigh the uncomfortable moments.
Later in life, I was walking down a city street approaching a particularly dirty man peddling for cash. As I neared, I smiled. He was just another person after all.
Put off for a few seconds, he took the advantage of asking for spare change. Having only plastic money with me, I declined and began to walk away.
As I did so, I heard him quietly say, “Thanks for the smile, anyway.”
A bittersweet warmth spread across my chest. I’ve never forgotten his sad eyes, but I like to think they were briefly brightened by that small, non-monetary show of humanity that too few people care to give.
Gradually, smiling at passersby became second nature for me.
I smile at everyone.
Whether a friend, a complete stranger or a homeless person, count on me for eye contact and a light smile as we briefly cross paths.
And honestly, it feels great.
No matter how down I feel on any given day, I smile. Not only does this small flexing of 17 facial muscles brighten another person’s day, but it soothes my own anxiety as well.
To give and receive smiles lightens any stress I feel in my head or my chest or my stomach. A smile sets free my happiness, like balloons floating on the breeze — I feel weightless and carefree.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @mackenziemicro