The Gift Of A Smile

I am not quite sure what day it was, as it has been a challenge to keep track of the days over the past three months. Plugging through the Zooms, the endless speculative conversations regarding what iteration of school we will have in the fall, the planning without clear guidelines, and, of course, dealing with my own emotions of anger, horror, and sadness at the emotional, fiscal, and political state of our beloved country has left me and countless others spent.

This week in New York, things started to feel different.  We have begun reopening our State; at the same time, old wounds were reopened for our country and so many Americans. If I could use one phrase to describe what it felt like it would be “Enough is enough!” Enough quarantine, enough anger, enough death, enough unfairness, enough zoom meetings, enough fear, enough heartache.  It has become difficult to find a place in this upside-down world.

I was sitting in my office trying to decide what task to complete next, hoping the satisfaction of crossing off a “to do” would help lift my spirits, when a text came from one of the rising star assistant principals in my District.

She reminded me that today was the day for the end of the year parade for two of our Elementary Schools. I thanked her without committing because, well because, I had a lot to do, and did I really need another parade?

With embarrassingly little excitement I hopped into my car deciding it may be helpful to get out of the office, get some fresh air, blast some music, and see some of my colleagues writers per hour review.

I pulled up to West Haverstraw Elementary School and was shocked by the number of cars, the decorations, the smiles of the incredible educators I had not seen in person or without a mask on for so long. I didn’t realize how much I missed these people, their smiles, their positive energy, their desire to change a child’s life.

It was a pretty wild scene, with signs, balloons, and even an appearance of the Paw Patrol. Over 100 cars lined up, ready to parade through the school’s bus routes, offering some sense of closure, of hope, of understanding, and letting our students know that we are still here for you, and still lose sleep over you.  The message seemed clear, the building is closed, but that does not mean the school is.

Our teachers, led by their administrators and a PE teacher (with a never-ending motor), had worked with our police and fire departments to create a special event.

Taking my spot at the rear of the endless line of cars I could not help but wonder what havoc our convoy would bring to the often congested streets of Haverstraw.  That is when our rear escort pulled up behind me, a Haverstraw police officer charged with ensuring our journey was a smooth one.

It is easy to miss moments like this one, especially with so much to do in this time of uncertainty, but when I opened my eyes and opened my mind to the moment, I could not help but smile. The sun shining bright in a picturesque blue sky offset by a few clouds so perfectly formed they almost seemed fake. This scene was quickly overshadowed by the smiles, the wonderful, joyous, genuine smiles of educators.  Educators are happy to do what they do best, do what they got into the field for, do what they have been craving to do…..connect with students, a connection that just doesn’t happen through the veil of a machine.

The parade began, and a wave of emotion overcame me.  Weaving through the neighborhoods of our wonderful community, I worried would people be happy to see us, or would the anger, frustration, fear that has been permeating our country seep into what was supposed to be a celebration of support.

My fears were quickly dispelled. We drove through poor neighborhoods, we drove through middle-class neighborhoods, we drove through more affluent neighborhoods. Everywhere we went, we saw smiles.  Genuine smiles! We saw black faces smiling, brown faces smiling, white faces smiling. We saw young and old smiles, we saw those in blue uniforms smiling, those in postal uniforms smiling, and when I saw a town maintenance worker pick up his head to offer a smile and a wave before I knew it a salty liquid was dripping from my eyes. The realization that with so much confusion going on in the world we were being given a gift, a gift from a wonderfully diverse community, we were given the gift of a smile, the gift of love, the gift of support.

The tears continued despite the upbeat Danza Kuduro (Thanks, Nat!)  blasting from my car speakers and I felt nothing but love. Politics, fear, anger, and conflict were not present that day; only positivity, signs, thank yous, cooperation, and, yes, wonderfully, glorious smiles!

I returned the love with smiles and eye contact with the little ones lined up along our route. At first, they seemed unsure, was the smile directed at me?  Then their young faces began to light up beaming pride at being noticed, at being remembered, at being seen.

Manny Scott

I forgot in our mask-covered world how much I missed the intimacy, comfort, and joy a smile offers. It brought me back to opening day in our District. During the magnetic and awe-inspiring keynote Manny Scott offered us a challenge. He asked us to smile more. “Smile,” he said because, “when you smile you can not be angry, you can not carry hate in your heart. When you smile you are making the world a better place. When you smile you are giving the world a gift.”

When I heard this talk nine months ago I wish I had focused more on the message and smiled more. You see, I, like you, had no idea that our world would be turned upside down so quickly.

None of us could have known that the handshake, the kiss hello, the pat on the back, heck standing next to someone would no longer exist in our world and could all be nearing extinction.  We had no idea that smiles would be covered by face masks, or blurred by the zombified computer screen.

I was not going to miss the opportunity that day or any day forward, vowing to myself to offer a smile when I have the opportunity and cherish everyone that comes my way despite our differences. I challenge myself to forgive, to repair, to own up, to reflect, to be open.

I know I have made mistakes, treated others unfairly, treated others differently, participated, stood by, been blind, been ignorant, been cynical.  I know now it is better to see conflict and disagreement through the lens of empathy and understanding.

I want to do better, I know I can do better, in fact I know we all can. We can educate ourselves with an open heart in an effort to achieve understanding.  Like Maya Angelou says, now that I know better I will do better.

That parade of celebration helped me to realize even for just a moment when an entire community and an entire wonderfully diverse, hardworking, caring community comes together as ours did, that love can overcome hate and we can overcome any challenge thrown our way.  No matter your job, your color, your age, your gender we can come together, we can do better.

I know in my heart that together we are better, when we build on each other’s strengths and support each other’s weaknesses when we are open to different opinions, cultures, and traditions we will learn and grow and there is nothing we can not overcome.

I challenge you as Manny Scott challenged us back in September. Give the world the gift of your smile whenever you can because unfortunately, the opportunities to smile are less, in a time when our world needs them the most.