"Don't stare," says my mom as she cuffs the back of my head and nudges me along through the store. I'm 6 years old. Old enough to notice that people are different, but not yet old or experienced enough to know that I'm not supposed to acknowledge that.
"Don't stare. Don't point. Don't call attention to their difference or disability." My mother drills her instructions into my head. "Would you want to be stared at all day?" she asks. I answer, "No."
How many generations have passed along this same advice? "Mind your own business." "Just worry about yourself." This advice was easy to follow and probably even made sense 25+ years ago when the likelihood that we children would encounter someone who was "different" was slim -- especially if, like me, you were a child in small town USA.
It took me moving abroad to understand that there might be a better alternative to just looking away. At 5'10" tall, blond hair and blue eyes, I stood, often literally, head and shoulders above the Italians. In my small Italian town, I was the oddball. I talked funny. I looked funny. People stared or they looked away. It felt terrible.
Over those weeks and months, I learned the infinite value of the smile. I'd see another American staring open-mouthed up at the castle on the hill and I'd smile and say hello. Their faces would light up and they'd stop me to chat. I would always walk away with a smile on my face and in my heart.
Gradually, I started to smile more. I smiled at the old woman shuffling through the market. She patted my hand and said, "Grazie, cara!" when I offered to carry her heavy bag. I smiled at the other nannies who struggled with unruly children. Slowly but surely I woke up to the world around me.
Now I smile at everyone I see that is somehow different from me. It takes but a moment to catch their eye, and if needed, offer a hand and it is always, always worthwhile.
Recently I chatted with a friend who is going through cancer treatments. She said:
It's strange, but sometimes people smile at me. I'm bald and swollen and so obviously dealing with a major health issue. It kind of creeped me out that they would smile. But one day I realized that these people who are smiling, these people are smiling because they want to let me know that they get what I'm going through. Maybe they've had cancer or known someone who has been very sick. Maybe they just want to let me know that even though they don't know me, they care. And now I smile back.
As the words came out of her mouth, I started to smile. I couldn't help it.
Now I tell my own children: don't stare, don't point but also don't look away. Just smile. Smile and let them know that you care. And maybe, just maybe they'll smile right back at you.
Wouldn't the world be a better place if we all remembered the infinite value of the smile?