At the local community college where I teach English 111, freshman composition, I traverse the campus twice a day every Tuesday and Thursday. As a freshman there in 1984, I recall being delighted to be on campus with many different people – teenagers like me, straight out of high school, preparing for college transfer or training for a trade or a certification program. There were retirees pursuing paths they were interested in to fulfill curiosity or explore interests rather than to enhance careers. There were stay-at-home moms whose children were now in school, taking advantage of those precious daytime hours to complete programs they had postponed years earlier, devoting themselves full time to home-making. There were workers adding on certifications and training to advance in their workplace or business, or to increase income and support their families. I remember sitting in classes beside people from all these walks of life, and more. We were all in school together, pulling in a common direction on our own journey, and we shared our experiences with each other.
Things are very different on campus now. In the intervening thirty-five years, we, as a society, have made our children wise to “stranger danger.” We have sent two complete generations through public school in an atmosphere of lockdown, drilling for where to hide when the unthinkable occurs. We have promoted bullying and racism to the point where the words don’t even have meaning anymore. We have grown accustomed to the fact that at any moment we could be attacked, by terrorists, by strangers, by coworkers, and as the entertainment industry tells us, by those we most trust for safety and security in our lives. Technology that has the ability to link us to the world through the internet and social media has so isolated us that I am inspired to play a game as I walk to and from my classroom looking into each face I meet. I count each day to see how many people, 1) will make eye contact with me, and 2) how many who look up from their phones will actually smile or speak a word of greeting.
Here are my results. Through the month of September and the first week of October, each Tuesday and Thursday, there has been one young man and two young women, who, when I see them, will actually make eye contact and speak. The young man I have known since birth and he knows me as his parents’ friend, so that is not unusual. One of the young women I taught at the local middle school years ago, so that is not surprising either. The other young lady is a complete stranger to me, but I feel a kinship with her simply because she will acknowledge me, smile and say hello. I haven’t decided when yet, but I am going to tell each of these three people what it means to me that they are willing to connect with another human, and dare to share that little bit of themselves – a glance, a smile, a word of greeting. Everybody else, and I mean everybody, no exaggeration and no exception, either stares fixedly at the phone in their hand, or if they turn their head in my direction, seem to be looking through me at some point in the distance, no eye contact. And they never smile. And they never speak.
No doubt, we want our children to be safe, to be aware that not everyone who smiles is a friend. No doubt we have to practice lockdown drills. I took these drills very seriously as a public-school teacher because, as I told my students, we may only get one chance to get this right and even then there are no guarantees. And no doubt, our phones have opened up the world to us. We have more information at our fingertips than all previous generations before us, and we can stay in touch with friends and family all over the world and see places and experience cultures we might never have seen or even known about had we lived just slightly earlier. We truly live in a breathtaking time.
This little experiment has reminded me how important it is to be intentionally present with my husband, children, family, and friends when we are together. It has prompted me to actually speak to strangers, most of whom seem glad for human contact once we start a conversation. Maybe it’s that I’ve hit that magical era called “middle aged,” and maybe I’m relieved that my children all made it safely, so far, to adulthood, or maybe I came to grips with my own mortality through a cancer diagnosis a few years ago, but there just doesn’t seem to be as much to be afraid of anymore. Maybe I’m so wearied of terror, fear, anxiety and dread, that I’m just numb to them, and maybe that’s good.
I will continue to look into faces, unobtrusively, but with a ready smile and greeting. I will take more time to talk, and listen, to the grocery checkout girl who is looking for a publisher for her first novel, the tattooed young woman who cheerily serves our meals at our favorite restaurant while chatting about her latest heavy metal concert experience, my 98-year old neighbor who enjoys his daily walk and nightly sip of bourbon, the tennis team member who struggles daily with depression and constant, paralyzing back pain, the young father who doesn’t want to leave his home or children but whose wife has made it clear the marriage is over and she’s moving on, the student who is working forty hours a week while caring for her younger brother and sister and carrying a fifteen hour course load, the choir member who is so confused she cannot remember from the beginning of practice to the end what music she should have in her folder.
Jackson Browne, in his hit, “Doctor My Eyes,” pleaded,
Doctor my eyes have seen the years, and the slow parade of tears without crying. Now I want to understand.
I have done all that I could to see the evil and the good without hiding.
You must help me if you can.
You can help me. I can help you, and we can help each other, by sharing in each other’s joys, by encouraging hope, by passing on peace, and by letting our light shine.
Here’s to a brighter view!