A smile is a simply thing really--so simple it's often overlooked. Think that a smile doesn't make a difference? Find out how a smile beat the bully.
This account is based on a true story that happened to me. The names have been changed to protect the guilty! (Incidentally, this story is another example of the profound influence my dad has had in my life.)
(This story was first published in a 2008 edition of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Middle School.)
Have you ever had a bully that scared the skin off of you? The one that you have nightmares about? It’s that face that you see when you get up in the morning with your stomach all tied in knots. Rosalie Bangeter was a bully in every sense of the word, and I was terrified of her. She was one of the meanest girls I’d ever met, and I have a sneaking suspicion that I was not the only person in the seventh grade that lived in mortal fear of her. I’ll never forget the day I saw her pulverize another student in the cafeteria. As if pounding the girl wasn’t bad enough, she topped it off by dunking her head in a half-eaten tray of meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
To this day, I don’t know why Rosalie hated me so much. The fact that I merely existed and had the nerve to breathe in and out seemed to tick Rosalie off, and she would never miss an opportunity to threaten or ridicule me. I would hear her jeering remarks when I walked out to catch the bus home. I could feel the heat of her glare when I cowered in my seat in the cafeteria and avoided looking anywhere near her direction. I would’ve walked the length of two football fields to avoid coming in contact with Rosalie Bangeter if I could’ve, but unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough time to do that and still get to my fifth period class before the tardy bell rang. So, I had to face the reality that for two or three excruciating seconds every day, I would have to walk past Rosalie Bangeter in the hall. I tried hanging out in my fourth period a few extra seconds and walking a little slower to my locker in the hope that Rosalie would have already gone to class, but that never worked. I would still pass her. Of course, I didn’t dare make eye contact with her, but I caught sight of her sneer in my peripheral vision when I scampered past. I knew it would only be a matter of time before she lashed out at me.
I was one of those quiet, timid seventh graders who talked up a blue streak at home but wouldn’t say two words at school. I had a couple of close friends that were just as shy as I was, and we usually huddled together and tried to stay out of everyone’s way. Deep down, I was envious of those outgoing, cheerleader girls that would be the first ones to raise their hands to work a math problem on the chalkboard. I felt like life was passing me by and that if I disappeared one day, no one at school would even notice or care.
My family lived in a small town of about three thousand people, and it seemed like my dad knew every single one of them. What was even more astonishing was that everyone seemed to know him. One day, I asked my mom how this was possible. She thought about this a minute and then said, “Well, Jenn, your dad never meets a stranger. He talks to everyone he sees, and then he gives them that big smile of his. I guess it’s contagious because people just love him.”
I wanted to be more like my dad. I wanted to get to know people and to somehow leave my mark on the world. But more than anything, I was tired of being that girl who cowered in a corner and got picked on. I thought about what my mom had said. I knew I had to take action, but how? There was no way I could just go to school one day and start talking to everybody. Forget for a moment that they would’ve thought I was a raving lunatic. I knew that as good as my intentions were, I would never be able to force the words out of my mouth. So, I caught hold of the phrase where she talked about his smile. I could smile. I mean everyone could do that, right? I decided to try it out, but I knew that there was only one way to go to the heart of my fears. I would take my experiment straight to the biggest bully of all—Rosalie Bangeter.
I don’t think I heard a single word my math teacher said that day in fourth period because I was too busy thinking about what I was about to do. Finally, the bell rang. I gathered my books and headed to my locker. My heart was pounding in my chest, and my hands were so sweaty I was afraid I’d drop my books. Somehow, I managed to shove my math book in the locker and pull out my English book. I ran my tongue over my teeth that felt dryer than the Mohave Deseret. Then I did a practice smile that I was sure looked more like a grimace. I took a deep breath and willed my feet to keep moving forward. I saw her in the distance coming toward me, looking as mean as ever. For the first time in my life, I made eye contact with her, and then I did it! I actually managed to squeak out a smile through my chattering teeth. Rosalie looked downright shocked, and then she scowled. I hurried past, sure that she was going to turn around and pounce on me. I don’t think I took another breath until I made it to my next class and collapsed in the desk.
The next day, I tried again. This time, my teeth weren’t chattering quite so badly. Rosalie was no longer surprised, but her snarl remained. This went on for several days, until one day, she didn’t glower. I hurried past her. Maybe she was in too big of a hurry today, I thought. The next day, she didn’t glower at me either. In fact, she gave me a little half smile for my effort. Over the next few weeks, Rosalie actually started smiling back. And then came that memorable day when I got the nerve to nod and say hi. I couldn’t believe it! She said hi back! At the end of the year, Rosalie looked me up and asked me to sign her yearbook.
In the years that followed, I broke out of my shell, one small nick at a time. I made many new friends and became an active participant in my classes. Looking back now, I can trace it all to that fateful day when I had the courage to smile in the face of my bully. So, the next time you’re in a jam, try it. It’s amazing how far a smile can go.