The Girl Who Wanted A Smiley Face

I knew him like the back of my hand. In fact, sometimes it seemed like he was stamped there. When we were little, I’d see him lurking at the corner of my paper. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him last, but I’ll always remember his round face and wide grin. He made sure people saw their brilliance. He was a colon and end parenthesis rotated 90 degrees.

I ran into him again during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. He was universal: there was no one group that lay claim to him. That summer, in two consecutive weeks, I had run into him in two very different locations. The first of which was in a kitchen with five year olds, a chef, and kid proofed knives. While we never officially met there, I saw him in the childrens’ faces as they gorged on the enchiladas and tacos they had spent the morning making.

The second time we saw each other that summer was at a table packed with kids in a tiny room in Newark, NJ. There were crayons of all colors strewn across the top, with each child leaning over a piece of paper, furiously scribbling away. For every drawing they completed, they got to see him hang in the corner of their paper, just as he had done to me so many years ago.

From the outside, it looked as if Liza couldn’t care less about the approval a smiley face carried. Two years younger than the rest of the kids, she could have had the label of troublemaker pinned to her chest as she wandered around the room. When the adults tried to talk to her, she’d pretend she couldn’t speak English. When they spoke to her in Portuguese and Spanish, she pretended she couldn’t understand those languages either. She was the girl I could never have been: maybe, that was why I approached her.

“I…I…I want a smiwey face,” she whispered softly. They were ghosts of words. The campers around her had two, three, five smiley faces each, and this little girl, isolated by her age, had none. Deep down, all this girl wanted was approval. She wanted somebody to be proud of her. Together, we filled up sheets with dots and curves in magenta, raspberry, and cotton candy.

When I saw Liza fill up the entire room with a dazzling show of teeth, I saw a reflection of myself at her age. That girl had disappeared when her math teachers stopped putting a smiley face on her tests and quizzes in middle school. In the end, all humans are social animals with a need for approval. We win for the people around us, but ultimately, we play hard for ourselves. That day, Liza didn’t earn her smiley faces the way the kids to her right and left did. In that moment, Liza did not care about what others had to say about her array of rosy faces. She was proud of herself for taking a path less traveled by, and for her, it made all the difference.