I Guess I just Have One of Those Faces

By Peggy Wuenstel —  For the last several years, the teaching staff of the elementary staff where I work begins the year in a similar fashion.

We don the new t-shirts purchased for us in school colors and emblazoned with a message about character. We assemble in the main lobby of the school and greet the students as the supportive team that we intend to be for the coming year. Parents, students, and particular our principal, love this moment. But the team metaphor can be overdone, and wearing a uniform can mask some important aspects of our individuality. I am also reminded about the things that I wear every day that are uniquely mine, my expression and my attitude.

I can’t count how many times I have been told that I remind someone of a family member, a friend, or a former teacher. People in the store often will stop me and call me by a name that is not my own. Even more often I witness their attempts to make contact that are stopped mid-sentence, when upon closer examination, they realize I am not the neighbor, sister-in-law or fellow PTA member that they believed me to be. Teaching, both in the public school and University setting allows us to opportunity to extend our circle of acquaintance every year.

At first I thought this “I thought I knew you” phenomenon was related to the large number of people I have been privileged to interact with over the last decade here in the small college town that I live in. But then I realized that it happens when we travel across the country, when I am in a place I have never visited before. The oral surgeon’s receptionist, the woman behind me in line at Hobby Lobby, the mother with her children at the park all reach out and say hello and believe we have met before.

I would like to think that it is the face that I wear, the open eyes, the smile and the sense of welcome that invites their conversation. I have come to understand that this is an extension of how I try to begin every new interaction at school. Making eye contact, greeting with a smile and a willingness to sit on the tiny chairs or the floor to reach a level of connection has always served me well. Wearing a colorful scarf, and interesting piece of jewelry or a new piece of clothing invites comment and creates a conversational opening, much like our back to school t-shirts.

But it is our expression that communicates the invitation to interact. A smile can indicate pleasure, affection, amusement, recognition and approval. It tells students and parents we are open to taking the time to hear their story, to share their concerns, to take what they offer and to reciprocate where we can. We don’t need a specific reason to smile, and I can think of no better reason to smile than to invite someone else in.

Being recognized as a positive, smiling person also helps me to believe that many people in our world, despite economic concerns, parenting worries, of other concerns have someone in their lives that projects positivity and connection. How wonderful that they believe that their child’s teacher personifies these qualities.

It might be tougher to smile these days, particularly in the ninety degree heat in buildings that do not have air conditioning, but that makes it all the more important that we do so. When encountering someone in the hallway, on the street, in the checkout line, be the first to smile, to say hello, to make the connection.

Like so many other aspects of teaching, what we model is far more likely to be replicated than what we direct our students to do through our words. Make is a practice to seek out the smilers, to reward those who face us in class who greet us with shining eyes and open hearts. Those special kids, those who draw their classmates and teachers to them, almost like there is a pheromone in the air around them, often seem to know this secret.  We can all be the people that others want to be around.

Back in my college days here at MU, I researched the topic of why cleft lip repair is done early in an infant’s life rather than waiting for facial development to occur and reduce the scarring and need for additional surgical procedures. There was strong agreement that giving babies the ability to smile, to connect on this very basic level with their families was key to future success. I learned that Disney animators know that the facial features of babies, human and animals, with their large eyes, and small noses and chins draw us in and make us care.

Every year, our school conducts a “Penny War” competition to choose staff members to participate in an end-of-school year stunt by voting with their spare change. Last year’s designated charity for the money that we raised went to Smile Train, an international organization that provides medical services to children in developing countries that need cleft lip or palate repairs. For many children, this is the only way they can even hope to attend school. Our efforts helped give a five year old in Niger a whole, healthy smile. The photo that the organization sent to us closed our opening staff meeting for the year, and gave us an even more powerful reason to begin the year with a smile.

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