How We Look to Others

The late Caroline Knapp wrote once that all her adult life she knew she seemed very ‘smooth and ordered’ on the outside but in fact was ‘roiling and chaotic’ underneath, and boy did that ever strike a chord for me because I am told I seem pretty ‘smooth and ordered’  too.

Once, when I brought a teen to look at a boarding school to which he was hoping to win a scholarship, the young woman who interviewed him asked to speak to me separately afterward. We chatted about things generally and about this young man too, and at the end she said, “I just feel as if I could talk to you all day! You’re so CALM!”

She evidently couldn’t hear the yips and barks and funhouse shrieks going on inside me.

You just don’t know what the inner reality of another person is; that’s why you can never judge.

Another interpretation of myself that I’ve sometimes been treated to involves the fact that I tend to walk around with a smile on my face.

“You’re always smiling at people! Why are you always SMILING?” near strangers have said to me in random settings.

Out of the blue like that. Not during any kind of conservation. Just in this pointed, halfway-nasty way as if what they were really saying was, “How about I punch you in the face right now?”

I’ve also noticed over the years that people who know you only a little often don’t like you that much, especially if you seem happy. It’s as if they think you stole their portion of happiness; that they could be a whole lot happier if YOU weren’t so darn happy.

When I was as a high school teacher, students who knew me only from seeing me in the corridors sometimes disliked me.  I know because they would tell me as much, after they had become my students. But by then they were in my class, and wrapped in that warm blanket of niceness, the one that all teachers are meant to wrap their pupils in, and their dark assessments had melted away.

Here’s one thing I know to be true: If I find someone hard to like,  it’s almost always because there’s something about them I’m not quite ‘getting’ yet. I just need to pay closer attention and try to know them better.

As to the always-smiling-at-people part, I smile that way because the aunt who raised me smiled that way –  throughout a life that was far from easy. I used to love walking down the street just behind her, to see the effect she had on the people in her path. By the time she had passed them, they were smiling too.

So you can roil all you want on the inside or be baffled or gibbering like a chimp and nobody will necessarily know it. That’s one more nice thing the sainted Fred Rogers told his television audience of little ones: Other people really CAN’T read your thoughts and thank Heaven for that!