Forgetting How to Smile

For an undetermined amount of time in my formative years, I simply forgot how to smile. And I don’t mean in the Hamlet “I have of late…lost all my mirth” kind of way. Sure, I was a surly teenager, but I didn’t forget how to smile because I forgot how to live, love, and be happy. In fact, if memory serves, I had plenty of reasons to smile from the ages of, say, 14-17, but for whatever reason, the muscles in my face required to execute a proper smile took an extended leave of absence.

Eventually, those same muscles came back to work around the time I graduated high school, but to have asked me to say “cheese” during that four-year stretch must have been a real doozy from the other side of the camera. Yikes.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, an awkward period during adolescence is about as familiar as the sun rising and setting. The manifestation of said awkwardness takes place on a spectrum that is roughly as long as Route 66, but like any long road, it eventually ends. I regained the ability to smile and order was restored to my universe.

While I will never be able to pinpoint why I forgot how to smile, I don’t regret that it happened. First, it gives me an easy go-to for self-effacing humor when I’m around people who lived through that time with me. Second, my kids love the pictures from that era. But most importantly, it reminds me that no matter how many times I have done something, voluntarily or otherwise, there’s always the possibility that I’ll forget how to do it. That I’ll lose my way. That I’ll have to take out a map even though I’m driving cross-country on a road without turns.

In education, we often forget how to smile. For some of us, that’s a very literal phenomenon during which our faces take on a very haggard, colorless look, matching how we feel on, say, Monday, February 5th at 730 am as first period begins. We just aren’t going to be smiling today. Perhaps our faces look this way because our spouse lost her job while sleep training our second child and waiting for a text from her mom to see how the cancer scan came out. Or, maybe our faces look this way because it’s the day after the Eagles first Super Bowl, and we just didn’t sleep well the night before.

Eventually, our faces will return to their regularly scheduled programs.

For others, forgetting how to smile isn’t literal at all, but it’s no less palpable or noticeable. Maybe we are churning out the same lesson on mitosis for the millionth time, but it just doesn’t feel right. Maybe we spend our day looking at the ticking clock more than the kids because we just don’t feel like being here anymore. Maybe we’re in a serious and prolonged crisis of confidence because we just can’t get through to that talented but largely unmotivated teacher.

Here’s the thing: without a strong sense of self-awareness, we wouldn’t even realize that we forgot how to smile. Now, in fairness, there was photo evidence of my transformation, for better or for worse. The best teachers and leaders I know don’t need photo evidence because they’re constantly reflecting on teaching, learning, and leadership. As such, if they did forget how to smile they would be wholly aware of it and take steps to retrain their faces to smile. Moreover, these folks don’t feel shame in the fact that they lost their way briefly because they know it’s only a pit stop, sometimes in the most necessary location on their journey.

Ask yourself, then, have you forgotten how to smile?