I remember my first few days at the University of Missouri.
I was a baby-faced 20-year-old with a white man’s afro. (I know; I haven’t changed much in the last four years.)
Every time I walked to class from my dorm room, 636 Schurz Hall, my eyes grew as I passed the leaves changing beautiful and the flowers staying gorgeous.
I saw thousands of students trampling across Speaker’s Circle, striding to Management 3000, chatting with friends on their cell phones or listening to Crazy by Gnarls Barkley on their iPod. They’d walk across the quad, doing similar things, engaging with gadgets rather than people, rarely looking up to even acknowledge the person passing them but always looking down, always staring into that four-inch square that somehow played music or produced a more-preferable voice.
And there was me, the new, friendly kid living away from home for the first time in a new city that was more than three times bigger than my old city, my hometown of Mason City, Iowa. There was me, somewhat disheartened.
This was a big school, yes – some 28,000 students at the time – and my old school, North Iowa Area Community College, was a small school, true – about 3,000 students back then. But at NIACC, we at least acknowledged, nodded or said hello to the person who sauntered past us in the opposite direction. I suppose it was the Iowa thing to do, or at least the right thing to do, the nice, courteous and friendly gesture.
Not here. Not then, at least. But I continued on, kept looking for moments to say hello, searching for times to offer at least a nod or a half smile to a fellow walker. I wondered why everyone was so hushed, why no one wanted to be polite.
I believed the smallest details in life make up the best moments of your day, such as when a person says hello and smiles when you’re having a rough day. It cheers you up, even if it’s just for a few hours. And that matters, those few hours help determine how your day went.
Then I thought some more, I wondered what all this meant, this keeping to yourself behavior. Why couldn’t people be more friendly? What did this say about us, the human race, that we weren’t into being kind to our neighbors?
Eventually, I slowly became one of them, because when people don’t raise their eyes from the iPod or set down the phone, it’s hard to say hello, even when you’re as idealistic as I was. I gradually stopped trying and became one of the non-friendly walkers who went to a big school and had so much on my mind I couldn’t stop being busy and start being friendly.
Then, in December 2008, I graduated from the University of Missouri, beaming proud of my school and my people. I loved it. Everything.
And now, I’ve left the place I loved, Mizzou, Columbia, Booche’s. And I’ve started again, heading down this path of friendliness and showing off my eagerness to be outgoing and happy. I don’t write this to prove my idealism; I know that I’m a dork. (Thanks, Gretchen.)
I write this to say I won’t stop this time when the guy down the street, sitting on his concrete stoop, smoking a cigarette before noon, just stares at me when I wave with my iPod buds in my ear. I’ll keep waving and nodding, saying hello and good morning to everyone I can, their reaction a non-factor. I’m happier that way, when I’m more outgoing and friendly to people.
I also do it to see people’s reactions. It’s as if no one has waved or said hello to them in the past 15 years. Some do a silent double take, thinking, Does he know me? Others say hello right back and quickly look away as if they don’t want to be caught being friendly in public, BFIP if you’re listening on the police scanner.
It’s been fun so far, this being outgoing and friendly thing. I hope you’ll join me.
If not, if you prefer the iPod instead of the hello, I know just the place for you to go.