As part of my job, I get the opportunity to interact with a lot of young people. I love the kids and my time with them, and they seem to like me in return. I try and be friendly most of the time, and I smile a lot. I’ve written blog posts about smiling before and how it’s an important part of my life and who I am. I smile at all the students, my fellow tutors, my supervisors, the parents, and whoever happens to be walking by. That’s just the way I am.
A month or so ago, one of my students noticed me smiling and being friendly toward one of my female coworkers. His face started to glow, and he had the biggest smile on his face. “What’s up?” I asked.
“You’re blushing!” he exclaimed. “You like her!”
I can’t remember what happened next on that occasion. I only know I tried to convince him that we were friends but nothing more. I remember how certain he was that he was right. I really just wanted to explain that I was gay and not really looking at her that way, but I didn’t. I’m still uncertain about how people will react to that knowledge. I wouldn’t be the only “out” individual at my workplace, but I’d be the only one working with young children, not that that should matter.
A few days ago, I had a repeat experience with the same child and a new female tutor that I was helping to train. Of course I was smiling and being friendly. “You like her!”
“I just met her,” I explained.
“I’m old enough to be her dad,” I added when the kid insisted. “I have a wife.”
“Swear to God you don’t like her,” he said.
Anyway, I realized that this kid was probably at the age when he’s starting to notice and really be attracted to girls for the first time. Although I was equally friendly to everyone there, he only noticed those times when I was smiling at or being friendly to an attractive young female adult. My guess is that he was projecting his own feelings onto me. I didn’t call him out on it though.
Later that same day, I was helping a child find their tutor, someone they’d never met before. “Don’t worry,” I told them. “They’re nice.” I made the comment privately to the new tutor I was helping that I thought all the tutors were pretty nice. “Not everyone,” she said. She said it kind of quietly, almost under her breath, and I wondered what experience she might have had in just the short time that she’d been there to make her think that there were unfriendly tutors.
When I started this job, almost a year ago now, I remember there were some tutors that would never make eye contact with me. In fact, there still are a couple like that. I see them making eye contact and smiling when they’re with their students, but they don’t interact much with people they haven’t met in a formal setting. That’s okay, I guess. I try not to take it personally. I wouldn’t call them unfriendly though, but maybe that’s not what my fellow tutor meant when she said, “not everyone.” Not being unfriendly doesn’t necessarily imply being friendly. I guess when I said everyone is friendly, what I meant was that nobody seemed particularly unfriendly.
Anyway, today being Sunday, I had nothing to do. I was in the mood to meet people and to be part of a community. I don’t know anyone at my apartment complex besides my neighbor, who I only seem to see about once every three or four months. So, for the purpose of feeling connected to a community, I found where the local Mormon congregation meets, and I attended church for the first time in nearly a year.
I don’t own a suit or white shirt, so no matter what I wear, I stand out from everyone at the Mormon church. I tried to be friendly and to look nonthreatening though. I sat in the back where there were still seats available. I had a direct line of sight to the front where the leadership sat. I could see them looking in my direction from time to time during the service. I expected someone would at least come and say hello at the end, but no one did. I tried to smile and make eye contact with people, but nobody went out of there way to greet me or to find out who I was. I wondered what I was doing there.
After the first combined meeting, everybody separated into other rooms for one more hour of meetings. I decided to give church one more hour as I had nothing else to do anyway. I thought that if I went early, I would give people more time to at least say hello. In the Sunday School room, I sat at the end of a row so that there would be plenty of room to sit near me if anyone so chose. Instead, the room filled up to near capacity with only the whole row of seats near me left available. Nobody sat near me. Nobody said hello.
I did listen to the speakers, and to the teacher in the second hour, and I sang all the songs with the congregation. I didn’t feel anything though. The speakers seemed almost desperate to prove their points that Joseph Smith was a true prophet and that the Book of Mormon was true. Had it always been like this? Nobody seemed particularly happy either. It felt as if people were just going through the motions out of habit. They were only there because they felt they were supposed to be there. Was it just this congregation, or was this something more widespread.
At the end of the meeting, a few people did make eye contact and looked as if they might say hello, but instead turned aside to greet or otherwise mingle with people that they already knew. I made my way slowly out of the room, walked two laps around the building, and left the church. I gave them every opportunity, but I guess they had other things on their minds.
As I left church today, I had two thoughts on my mind. First, I wondered if I weren’t just like my young student that thought I was in love with every attractive female I happened to smile at. Like him, maybe I was projecting my own thoughts and feelings onto others. I thought the members of this congregation seemed unhappy and all their talk about the Holy Ghost seemed to lack spirit of any sort. I felt like they were saying the words and playing a role, but none of it was real. Was it really them though, or did those feelings I had reflect something going on inside of me instead? I guess that’s still something I need to think about.
My other thought was about the young tutor that didn’t think everybody was friendly. At work, I usually go out of my way to say hello when I see a new face. I try and help the newcomers as much as I can. I’m a different person at work than I am at church. I’m a person that I like. I find everybody to be friendly because I bring that with me. I expect friendliness to be returned, and it almost always is.
At church today, I wasn’t as proactive as I am at work. Yes, I tried to smile and make eye contact. I tried to make it easy for others, but I didn’t actually say hello to anyone or attempt to start any conversations either. If I had, I imagine people would have been friendly, and I could have had a different experience. Today, I could say that nobody was friendly. Maybe next time though, if there is a next time, I’ll be able to say that everybody was friendly.
Until then, I might just head out to Walmart. Last time I went shopping, I smiled and made eye contact with many people as I went up and down the aisles. And honestly, I got better returns from strangers at Walmart than I did from church today.