A few months ago, I was asked by Smile Train UK if I’d be willing to make a presentation about the charity to a primary school that was planning a fundraiser in the autumn, and I readily accepted. In the intervening months, a lot of other things kept me preoccupied, so I almost forgot about the presentation until last week when I frantically began to put it together.
My talk was scheduled to coincide with the school’s upcoming celebration of World Smile Day (Friday, October 6th), a day devoted to smiles and acts of kindness.
I must admit I’d never heard of World Smile Day before and I assumed it was a Smile Train invention. As I discovered, however, the concept was initially introduced by Harvey Ball, an American commercial artist best known as the creator of the smiley face and has nothing to do with cleft kids per se.
If I wasn’t already nervous, I became very much so when I entered the school hall and was met by an ocean of red school jumpers. On the floor sat at least a hundred, if not more, boys and girls, waiting for me to begin. At that moment, I silently thanked my 7-year old daughter who in the days before had proven a skilled, and unforgiving critic as I practised my presentation at home with her as my only audience.
“‘Vision’ is kind of a tricky word, mummy,” she said, “could you swap it for an easier one?”
“Goal,” I suggested.
“You need more pictures, as well” she advised, “and tell them about your trip Guatemala.”
Since she represented the age group to which I was aiming my presentation, I took her advice.
The pupils turned out to be a curious and empathic lot. When I asked them to imagine what it might be like for a child living with an untreated cleft, they were spot on:
“Hard to make friends.”
“Bullied at school.”
“Difficult to eat.”
When I showed them pictures from my trip to Guatemala last year and told them a little about my own experience being born with a cleft, their arms shot up, eager to ask me questions.
“Did it hurt?”
“How old were you when you had your first operation?”
“Did you feel sad?”
“Were you scared when you went to the hospital?”
And some of them offered their own stories of broken legs, sprained ankles, and tummy aches.
Throughout my presentation I showed pictures of children with clefts, some treated others not, and I was struck by how accepting the pupils were of the facial differences displayed on the screen in front of them.
They didn’t find it scary, disgusting or weird and their curious yet sensitive and empathic response reinforced my belief that children are naturally accepting of appearance-based differences but unfortunately as they grow up they are taught by society to recognise and discriminate against others who look different.
In celebration of World Smile Day, I’ve set up a fundraising page to help children with clefts in the developing world get the help they need. Please consider becoming a smile maker by making a donation. Thank you!