When were you last gifted with a smile?
Not a white-washed, Colgate-bright celebrity smile that screams at you from the cover of glossy magazines and sets your teeth on edge, but a genuine smile given person to person, in real time.
Sitting behind the plexiglass window at my day-job I look out at the customers as they file past me and try to smile as much as I can. Adults usually return the smile in a blank, soul-less kind of way that means they have a million other things on their mind right now and yes, they might be speaking to you but they don’t really see you. To be honest I probably give out that smile too; on a busy day when hundreds of people walk past me, shucking their clothes in the foyer to get themselves in the pool even quicker, I frankly don’t have the time or patience to meet everyone’s eye.
But it’s different with the kids.
My desk sits quite low and puts me on a level with the children who come along to the pool; usually with their parents, sometimes (if they’re older) alone. It is a nice place to be because, when they’re not screaming down the customer microphone and deafening me with feedback, they look at and really see me.
I know this because as they stare through the glass, their expression is often one of intense concentration; the young mind processing who or what they are seeing and whether it is interesting or funny or a threat. I always try to smile at these kids – yes, because its my job – but also because I remember how overwhelming the world of Grown Ups can be at a young age.
Some of them see my smile and turn away; that familiar gesture on a stranger’s face is just too much to bear. They seek comfort in their Mum’s arms or behind Dad’s leg. Then, as they walk away, they often look back to see if my smile is still there. It is and I like to think that that constancy gives them hope that the Big Wide World might not be such a scary place.
Others take my smile as a cue to strike up a conversation; mainly one-sided as they regale me with tales of who they are with, why they are here and what they had for lunch that day. I know I don’t have to use words to take part in this interaction, just keep smiling and maybe make the occasional nod or wide-eyes to give the kid confidence in their own voice, their own words. My smile is to tell them that they matter, that someone is hearing them speak and knows the things they simply had to say.
Then there are my favourite kids: the ones who are somewhere in between the chronically shy and the helplessly confident, the kids who smile back. They don’t speak and their eyes are usually quite intense; checking me out, checking the smile I’m offering is real. When they realise that it is their gaze opens up, their eyes shine and their mouth curves into a smile: unique, utterly theirs and so genuine, loving and heartful that for a brief second I forget I am looking at a child. They are simply human, another being, another soul travelling through this life and connecting with me for a brief, beautiful instant.
I hope that somewhere, in thoughts that they may not have fully developed yet, they recognise that moment too. That gradually they come to know the power of a smile and sharing of a moment; the need to truly be seen by another person. It happens so rarely in our super-fast, self-service society that those moments are a precious gift to be treasured.
And if we received this gift more often perhaps there’d be less need for plexiglass windows and perhaps we’d all wear a real smile more often.
Who has lifted your heart with a smile recently?