I always loved the first day of school. Everything was shiny and new and exciting in that moment. The students arrived with never before worn shoes and backpacks filled with sharp pencils and blank sheets of paper. The teachers mostly had rested looks on their faces as they modeled their outfits just purchased for the occasion and strutted their optimism about the coming academic year. It was a new beginning when everyone was hopeful and determined to be the best versions of themselves. All of us were ready to begin anew.
I usually gave my students assigned seats from the very start. The chart I had made allowed me to learn their names quickly and put faces on the souls who would be in my care for the next many months. As we did “get acquainted” activities I studied the body language and responses of the youngsters with whom I would share most of my daytime hours. In particular I looked at their faces and learned much about them from their eyes, the windows to how they were doing and what they were thinking.
I saw shy and worried stares as well as the twinkle of mischievousness as I gazed at each student sitting before me. Sometimes I noted a detached and sorrowful look as though all of the joy had somehow been beaten out of a soul. I witnessed eager attentiveness and brilliant curiosity in those eyes. I worried about the angry and mistrusting eyes telling me that I would have to prove my mettle with my kindness and trust. In only a few minutes I already had some idea of the fears and hopes of my students just by watching their eyes.
It’s difficult for someone to hide how he/she is feeling. Our eyes tell so many stories, especially when we are still young and have not perfected techniques of hiding truth. Our eyes tell all the world when we are tired or rested, happy or sad, honest or lying. They are windows into who we are and how our many moods unfold. If we become aware of the signals that a person’s eyes are sending us we begin to know when we have made them feel good and when we have hurt them. The cues from the eyes tell us what is happening inside a person’s heart moment by moment.
Of course as we mature many among us learn how to be great actors. Some perfect the art of forcing their eyes to convey meanings that are not real. They become able to fool everyone by hiding how they are actually thinking or feeling. We don’t see that they are depressed or angry or even lying. We are surprised when we learn the truth about them, sometimes even disappointed. Most of us, on the other hand, are open books. We are so guileless that our eyes give away our thoughts and our feelings.
There is nothing quite like the look of betrayal in the eyes. They seem almost dead as though the acts that surprised and wounded them temporarily snuffed out the very life in the eyes. When I saw such looks as an educator it was heartbreaking. It was the look of a young girl who had been impregnated by her uncle and then told by her parents to keep quiet. It was the look of a young man whose abusive father had convinced him that he was weird and unlovable. It was the expression of a colleague who had found out that her husband was involved in an illicit affair. Something dies inside people when they learn that they have been deceived or abused by people who should have been loyal and loving. It is the worst expression that I have ever seen.
I should not judge people by the looks in their eyes but I find that a careful analysis of how they appear gives me clues as to what they are really thinking rather than what they are saying or doing. I’ve heard stories of doctors using the eyes to detect unseen diseases long before they become chronic or deadly. My ophthalmologist was able to note things about my health that were uncannily true just by examining my eyes.
I cannot imagine life without eyesight. It is the one sense that means the most to me. Perhaps because I am a visual learner I more acutely feel the importance of my eyes in navigating through life. Maybe it is because I watched my grandmother become almost blind in her last years. It was difficult to see her being unable to cook without noticing that the milk she used was curdled or that she had somehow made food that contained shards of glass. Nothing made her happier than watching us devouring her delicious meals, so having to eat with great discretion was a sorrowful task for all of us. Her once brilliant and dancing blue eyes became clouded with sadness and worry but somehow they also conveyed her undying love for us.
My mother used to chide me for staring at people. She did not understand that I was observing them and especially looking at their eyes. I suppose my lengthy studies of them may have seemed invasive, but my only intent was to get to know them and understand them. Their eyes were the windows through which I needed to peer.
I love the eyes of infants. When they are healthy and loved they gleam with innocence and joy. They are utterly delightful. Sadly the world sometimes wears them down. By the time I would see them in my classroom many of them had experienced grievous atrocities. Theirs were the eyes I most needed to understand. They begged me to help them. I did my best to intercede but knew that I had not always been successful. Nonetheless when their eyes began to smile I knew I had done my job.
I can still see those thousands of eyes. They both comfort and taunt me. I wish I might see them now to confirm that most of them are okay. All I would need is one look to know. Their eyes would tell their stories just as they always have.