My 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Martin, gave gifts to each student at the end of the year. I remember that I was one of the few who received a book, a treasure for me. I loved school, a wonderful escape from home, a place I could succeed. I knew what was expected and focused on preforming perfectly, to avoid notice for doing something wrong. Teachers today have training to spot indicators of an abusive home, back then they gave more hugs. Mrs. Martin was an elderly teacher, probably retiring soon after I had her, a grandma-like person I spent my days with who nurtured me. At the end of the year, I was bereft. My father worked nights, mom worked days. He would be home with me all day, for months. I wanted to stay with Mrs. Martin.
She gave me a book titled, “A Smile is To Give.” She told me I had a beautiful smile, I just needed to share it more. Maybe she knew, maybe not, that I was a terrified child who couldn’t smile. Forty-four years have passed since I received that book. I think about it often. How would life have been different had she asked why I don’t, rather than encourage me to do so. Would I have told?
Too many times I have been told to just smile, at jobs, with my husband even. Smiles are invitations to get closer, to breach the walls. I don’t smile much, certainly not at strangers or just in passing. Close trusting relationships are the safe places my smile resides. I laugh the most with my daughter, or did. I miss that, I don’t laugh, that completely unself-conscious bubbling laughter that knows no limits. I only do that with her. I am not a natural smiler. I see women who are, I watch them closely. Their smiles reach their eyes, their faces glow. I imagine freedom in their souls, trusting that the world is kind. I imagine their 2nd grade teachers gave them books about exploring or art. When I do smile, I wonder if it ever reaches my eyes, if anyone has ever seen into my soul. Ever.
A smile is to give, I learned in 2nd grade. I have been receiving others’ for a very long time, withholding mine, greedily taking. Mrs. Martin might be disappointed that the 8 year girl she knew still looked at the world with caution, watching, waiting. But maybe what she really meant is that I was to seek out those with one to share, rather than pushing me to give mine. Maybe she did know it was too hard for me, but I could find sanctuary among those women whose souls were open enough that even their eyes smiled. Rather than seeing the deficit in me, she kindly gave me the code for safety after all. Thanks, Mrs. Martin, for knowing some eyes smile, some seek safe havens. Maybe I finally figured out the message from 2nd grade, after all these years.