“A Light in the Window,” New Era, Sept. 1977, 33
“Call me anonymous,” I scrawled on the inside of my notebook cover. It was geography, my most depressing class, not only because I’m not exactly a scholar in geography, but also because I was sitting behind two somebodies in our school, Beverly Allred and Jenny Banks.
Beverly, who had been voted “Miss Dental Hygiene” just two days after she’d had her braces removed, was beautiful and self-confident. I suspected she would have won the honor even if her dad hadn’t been a dentist. Jenny, a cheerleader, was animated and vivacious. The two were good friends who giggled and spoke secrets and excluded me. Even when they looked toward the back of the room or out the rear door into the hall, they never looked at me. They always looked around me as if I were merely a fixture in the room.
What makes a person anonymous? I didn’t know. I just knew with a gnawing ache that nobody at Jackson knew or cared that I was around except maybe Lucy Price and Jim Wilcox, the only other Mormons. But they were older than I and not in any of my classes.
I knew even before I asked her what my married sister Janet would say, but I asked her anyway.
“Why am I so anonymous at school? Nobody even noticed when I was out with the flu.”
“You’re only anonymous because you think you are,” Janet answered. “Honestly, Martha, you walk around with such a scowl on your face that people are afraid of you.”
“When you’re a dud, why smile,” I said.
“You are not a dud!” she said getting exasperated. “How many times do I have to tell you that? Just smile, for goodness sake!”
Other members of my family had been hinting the same thing for the last year. Mom had put a quote on the bulletin board in the kitchen for my benefit. It read: “A smile is a light in the window that says the heart is at home.” Jeff, my brother, didn’t hint, he just called me “the Sphinx.”
“Well, maybe you’re right,” I said. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to just try it.”
“Hallelujah!” Janet said. “Will you try it tomorrow?”
“Okay, maybe I will.” It surely couldn’t hurt me to try, I thought. Besides, I knew I had a nice smile. My teeth were straight, and Dad had told me once I could easily be in a toothpaste advertisement.
I meant to try the experiment the next day, but it began with one of those rushed mornings when everything goes wrong. I had spent over two hours on the algebra assignment that I left on my desk. That meant I had to hurry and recopy it between classes. Luckily, I still had the rough draft in my notebook. I was so busy that I didn’t even remember I had teeth until I overheard Jenny and Beverly talking about that very subject.
“I have to get braces next week,” Jenny complained. “I wish I’d gotten them when you did so that I’d be finished with them now. Your teeth really look fantastic.”
“Thanks, I think they turned out pretty good,” Beverly said, obviously pleased. Then she turned slightly.
“Know who else has pretty teeth?”
Suddenly, I was listening intently. The blood rushed to my face. Me, I thought. I do! They were going to acknowledge my existence at last.
“Alice,” Beverly said.
“Alice?” We all turned to look at Alice who sat two rows from us.
“We’re just talking about how pretty your teeth are,” Jenny said when Alice gave them an inquiring look.
“Oh, thanks,” she said happily. I looked at Alice’s teeth as she smiled. They were pretty, but no prettier than mine. I should have been happy for her, but instead I was miserable for myself. Why hadn’t they complimented me instead of Alice?
“Did you have to wear braces?” Jenny asked.
“No, I was just lucky,” Alice answered.
I was lucky too, I wanted to say. Especially considering the fact that I sucked my thumb until I was eight. But, of course, I didn’t say it. It would have been a dumb thing to say—a “notice me” scream. Nor did I say, my dad thinks I could easily be in a toothpaste advertisement because my teeth are so straight. There are some things you just don’t say. But, what I did was just as bad. When Beverly turned and happened to glance at me, I was grinning widely, a silly, empty, hopeful grin, so that the girls would see that yes, indeed, my teeth were pretty too. Beverly gave me a “you’re odd” look, shrugged her shoulders at Jenny, who giggled slightly, and the two girls turned to face the front of the room.
Again the blood rushed to my face when I realized how obviously I was shouting “notice me” with that toothy grin. What a fool I am, I thought. What a ridiculous fool, sitting here grinning, hoping that someone will notice that my teeth are nice. They noticed all right. They noticed that I was trying too hard. Well, so much for the smiling experiment. I’m never going to smile again!
For the next few months I scowled. Of course, that wasn’t unusual for me, and nobody noticed much of a change. I retired more deeply into my shell, and things got worse instead of better. By the time spring came, I was more lonely and miserable than I had ever been in my life. I had faded into the scenery. I was not a person, I was part of the hall, part of the woodwork, a nobody with no place at Jackson … until that day.
It was one of those surprising days when suddenly it’s spring. Just the day before it had snowed, and now the sun was shining so brightly into the windows that even I felt the rush of warmth into the normally cold, unfeeling halls. I had gone to the office and was walking down the front hall when it happened.
“Hi!” Nancy Patrick in my home economics class said it first.
“Hi,” I answered. Then a boy in geography said it. And then Margaret, a girl in my gym class smiled broadly at me. “Hi,” I responded. I couldn’t figure it out. Why was everyone so friendly? Was it a special day at school?
“Hi,” said a boy I didn’t even know.
“Hi,” I said in almost a whisper. Then I cleared my throat. “Hi,” I said more loudly. It must be “Hi day” or something like that, I thought. Funny, I hadn’t heard anything about a special day. When two more people smiled at me, I studied the situation, and then I studied myself. Suddenly, I knew. The sun was so bright at the far end of the hall that it had created a glare that was causing me to squint and pull my mouth into a grimace. No, I wasn’t smiling. I only looked as if I was smiling. People thought I was friendly. Was that really all it took? No, that couldn’t be all. It couldn’t be that easy. Or could it? I carefully changed my grimace into a smile, a real smile.
“Hi,” said Jackie Rollins. She’d never spoken to me before.
“Hi,” I said with mounting enthusiasm. Then I saw them. Beverly and Jenny had just turned the corner. My smile faded and I felt the enthusiasm slipping out of me. I stopped it before it got away completely. No, just for once, I would not let them defeat me. Just for once, I would let them know I existed and smile at them. But, what if they didn’t smile back? What if they ignored me? Well, that would be their problem. As they approached, I mustered up all my courage.
“Hi!” I said, smiling broadly. The boldness of that hi surprised me as well as the girls. It wasn’t a nobody hi. It was a somebody hi.
“Hi,” Beverly said uncertainly.
“Hi,” Jenny said with more vigor. “See you in geog!” After they had passed me, I was still smiling, inside and out. I did it! I thought. It works! I’m a somebody, a real person! An important person!
I walked into my science class with the broad, brave smile still on my face. Bill, the tall redhead who sat next to me and who had only spoken to me twice all year (once to borrow a pencil), wrinkled his freckled nose and grinned at me. “Hey! You have teeth.”
“What’s wrong with a person smiling?” I asked defensively.
“Nothing. Believe me, nothing. It’s just that I thought maybe Mormons weren’t allowed to smile or something.” I stared at him. Had he really said what I thought he had just said?
“Hey, turn off the icy stare. I’m just kidding.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, coming to my senses. “But how did you know?”
“That I’m a Mormon.”
“When you’re different, word just gets around. Everybody knows.”
Still in shock, I opened my notebook and saw the words “Call me anonymous.” I scratched them out. Underneath I drew a window, and inside I drew a smile, a big, toothy smile. Then I wrote “Call me friendly!”