Smiling at Strangers

Rebecca - Rockport, Massachusetts
Entered on May 20, 2008
Age Group: Under 18
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When I was nine, my great-grandmother died after spending a few months in a nursing home. The place felt slightly depressing, and yet, after she was gone, I decided to begin volunteering there. I liked making Charlotte–the blind woman who had been my great-grandmother’s roommate–smile. I felt that now that I knew them, I couldn’t just walk away. I wasn’t trying to be selfless, or put other people first, I enjoyed getting to know those women and feeling like I was making their days a little bit better. I believe that by connecting with people, I can make myself and them happier. I’ve always been outgoing and I’ve never really created the boundaries with strangers that most people have. I smile at people I don’t know, simply because I don’t see why I shouldn’t. People are people, whether I happen to know them already or not.

I went to a friend’s cross country meet a few years ago. I watched everyone cross the finish line, until there was only one girl left, walking slowly down the last stretch where I was sitting, right around the corner from the end. Her expression was dejected, exhausted, and even a little embarrassed. I don’t know why her unhappiness hit me so hard. I guess I realized how glad I was that I was here, safe in the stands, and watching, instead of down there, last, and being watched. I sat up straighter and, without thinking about it at all, shouted, “You can do it, you’re almost there. Just one more corner!” Her eyes flew up to mine and, suddenly, her face broke into a smile. She took a deep breath, and stood up a little straighter. Then she took off running again. In that moment, I connected with her. I showed her that I, a complete stranger, understood how she was feeling, and wanted to see her happy. I never saw her again. I didn’t even notice her walking around with the other runners at the finish line when I went over to congratulate my friends, but even so I remember her now. We had only shared one moment, but I had made the effort to connect with another person, and so I had.

My belief isn’t awe-inspiring. It isn’t borne of a tragic experience. My belief is simply a gut feeling; something that, maybe, I’ve always known. I know this, too: no one is unhappy to receive a bright smile while walking down a crowded city street. A cheerful, “Hello” never ruins someone’s day. I believe that everyone deserves to know that there is someone there, cheering on the sidelines, wanting him or her to succeed. Most importantly, I believe helping people isn’t about whether they’re my friends or strangers, young or old. It is about connecting with others, and trying to make the world a friendlier place, one person at a time.