A Handshake and A Smile

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I saw a video that featured kindergarten students giving each other a handshake and a smile each morning before the start of class. It made me happy to see them and also to think of how such small gestures have the power of making a very big difference in virtually any situation.

My husband and I recently began attending Sunday mass at Mary Queen Catholic Church. Mike decided that he wanted to go there because a group of ladies there made him a prayer quilt shortly after his stroke. They sent the lovely item with a promise to pray for him regularly even though they had never before met him. He was quite touched by their kindness and insisted that he wanted to be part of a place that demonstrated so much caring love. Thus we drive a rather good distance each week to be part of that community. Amazingly the inviting attitude is continually apparent there. From the moment that we walk through the door we are greeted by smiling parishioners and priests who open doors for us and make us feel very welcome. It is a form of thoughtfulness that warms our hearts and brings us back again and again. As humans we are as attracted to love as tiny creatures are to light.

The schools where I most enjoyed working emphasized the same kind of attention to people as those kindergartners and my church. Teachers were in the hallways during passing periods greeting students as they walked to class and saying hello to those entering their rooms. It set a positive tone that made virtually everyone feel as though they were part of something quite special, and it didn’t require any extra time or much more effort to do so. In fact it felt so good that it became something that brightened everyone’s days.

One of the principals with whom I worked asked the faculty to catch students doing something good. It was a different take on vigilance that allowed us to notice the wonderful things happening in our school. We complimented the students who were being extraordinarily kind and gave their names to the principal who mentioned them at the end of each day and called them to the office for congratulations. We soon found that there was far more of a spirit of generosity taking place inside our school than we had ever imagined. By focusing on what our students were doing right we changed everyone’s attitudes. Going to the office was not just for getting into trouble any longer, and being nice was as important as making good grades. The environment became happier and happier simply because we chose to hunt for the best rather than the worst.

Watching the news might lead us to believe that our society is doomed and that we are surrounded by hateful reprobates. In truth there are some people who for whatever reason are inconsiderate and even criminal, but time and again the evidence points to a society that is mostly composed of truly wonderful folks whose desire is to live peacefully and happily with one another. Perhaps all we need to make that wish more likely to come true is to make just a bit more of an effort.

I am shy by nature. I have to psyche myself whenever I enter a place where I know very few people. I’ve trained myself to make the first moves toward friendship when needed, but there is noting quite like having someone else offer a hand and a smile before I do. I instantly feel better about the situation, and I suppose that almost anyone would. I return to stores with friendly sales people and make note of those with surly employees. Who after all wants to feel as though they are unwanted?

Children often naturally form groups with those that make them feel the most comfortable. When a new person arrives they may or may not extend a hand of friendship unless they have seen that kind of behavior being modeled. Being the new kid at school can be traumatic if there is not a warm environment. I’ve been there before and it is a horrible feeling. I’ve also been the recipient of efforts to make me feel wanted, and each time that happens I feel a sense of relief. Sometimes it takes practice to teach people the art of inclusion.

I wonder how many acts of violence might be thwarted by a handshake and a smile? Is it possible to change the trajectory of an encounter if the atmosphere is open and welcoming? I suspect that in most cases friendliness is a magical healer.

To this very day I see the faces of people who made me feel good about myself in times when I was anxious. It took so very little for them to quell the fears that were welling in my heart. They turned difficult times into memorable ones and sometimes even led to long time friendships. I seen Zerin asking me to sit with her on my first day at a new school. I recall Flo’s beautiful smile on the occasion of our meeting. I think of Virginia who stilled the tears that were threatening to fall from my eyes because of my nerves. I still smile when I think of Johnny complimenting a birthday dress on my sixteenth birthday when I felt so gawky and unsure of myself. These sweet individuals probably had little idea how calming there actions were at a time when I was worried and feeling not quite myself.

I’d love to see all schools encouraging a routine of shaking hands, smiling and reaching out to everyone, especially anyone who appears to be clinging to the shadows. Kindness should be as much a part of each day as the lessons. If we began when our kids are very young and continue such expectations for all of their lives we might begin to see far less ugliness. It’s certainly worth a try.