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Smiling Beneath the Mask

When each of my children were babies, I remember being excited for them to reach certain milestones. Smiling was among the first I anticipated seeing. I mean, what parent doesn’t want to see their young one smile? There is nothing that compares to a person recognizing you and instantly breaking out into a smile. Baby books even have a place devoted for parents to record the date of a first smile as well as a place to include a picture of this event.


And I can tell you from experience that adults will go to great lengths to see babies smile. I’ve made some absurd faces in an effort to get a kid to show me a grin. This continues into adulthood. Comedians devote their careers to making others smile, even if for only a moment.


And being a reserved youngster, I learned early on, that a smile could speak volumes without speaking a word. And people appreciate a smile.

So what’s the point? When my face is covered with a mask, no one can see my smile, and even worse, I can’t see the expressions of others. And I miss it!


The other day I was having a conversation with my son waiting at the dentist. He was mumbling a bit, so I was having trouble hearing him. The mask muffled his voice, and I wasn’t able to use my limited lip reading abilities to decipher what he was saying. Normally I’m pretty adept at reading people, but with his face covered, I had no clue how he was feeling. Was he upset, nervous, indifferent, or something else? I had no clue.


So I got up close to him...since we’re family I didn’t have to adhere to the six feet rule. My instinct told me to pull the mask down so I could comprehend his words, but I refrained. He finally explained to me that he no longer needed me to escort him into the room while his teeth were cleaned. You see, before Covid-19, I always stayed in the room with him, and he liked it that way. But with the new recommendations, parents are only allowed in if it’s absolutely necessary. I smiled under my mask at my brave young man, and told him I was proud that he was going to try this independently. But I wished I could unveil my face and use my lips to show him how I felt.


Although I haven’t been to too many public places, I’ve had similar experiences elsewhere. I always give a smile of appreciation and a “thank you” when someone serves me at a store or restaurant. But my smiles can’t be received or reciprocated. And I find it frustrating. Seeing the entirety of a person’s face is something I miss. It’s hard not to see the way a smile can light up a face.


I am a social creature. I have always liked to connect with other humans. And as an educator, I endeavor to find solutions to conundrums, especially social ones. Maybe face masks with smiles painted on would be helpful. But a smile that’s there all the time isn’t particularly believable. Admittedly, over the years, I’ve used smiling as a mask and coping mechanism quite readily. When you’re smiling, people assume you’re happy. But smiling is a necessary form of nonverbal communication, and when it’s plastered on, it loses its authenticity.


What’s the answer then? Well, I decided to put on my mask, and look at my face in the mirror. Then, I practiced different facial expressions under the mask. And guess what? Even though my mouth was covered, something happened when I smiled. My cheeks lifted, and my eyes opened a bit more. There was a noticeable difference in the way my face appeared in the mirror. Was the effect as prevalent as when my mouth was visible? No, but would someone notice my smile under the mask? If they were looking hard enough, I was convinced that they would.


Was my problem solved? No, I will continue to miss seeing the faces of others and reading their emotions. But I will keep smiling. And if Tyra Banks from the once popular television series “America’s Next Top Model” is watching, she’ll be proud to see me “smiling with my eyes.”


I will also continue to try to identify the feelings of others around me. And when the masks come off eventually, I will appreciate the smiles all the more. I won’t take for granted my ability to show my pleasure to those around me, and I’ll thrive on receiving smiles from others.


So keep your mask on in public, but never mask your smile. And I challenge you to keep your six foot distance, but look for the masked smiles of others around you.


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