My high school newspaper always had a special graduation issue. In it, they asked the seniors for the best piece of advice that they had received thus far, to bestow that knowledge on to the younger classes. My answer came from a comment that my wellness class teacher made during my freshman year.
Look people in the eyes, say hello, and ask them how they are doing.”
The story of how this recommendation came to be is also the story of one of my most embarrassing moments in high school, when the same wellness teacher, Mr. Fogarty, called me out in front of the entire class. He was lecturing about a growing trend he had noticed as a high school educator: the inability of “young people these days” to participate in just the smallest of social interactions, things as simple as making eye contact and participating in the customary, “How are you today?”
“Not a single one of you does this when you see me in the halls,” he reported to the class, “except for Lilah.”
My blood ran cold as the eyes of my fourteen-year-old peers suspiciously turned towards me. A friend to my right stifled her laughter as I turned bright red.
My locker in high school was situated right outside of Mr. Fogarty’s office, in a hallway that led to the wellness classrooms and the gymnasium. I was appropriately intimidated of Mr. Fogarty, the same way everyone was. He was quiet until he wasn’t, and then he didn’t hesitate to tell you if he felt you were being lazy or disrespectful, qualities many high school students tend to embody at one point or another. In addition to being a wellness teacher, Mr. Fogarty was my track coach for my first two years in high school. His booming voice was the only one I could pick out during my track races. I feared him, but I also admired him. The proximity of my locker to his office, in addition to having a wise older sister who advised me to befriend Fogs (as we affectionately came to call him), gave me the courage to break the ice early. I introduced myself to him within the first few days of high school orientation. Every morning when he walked past my locker, I said hello and asked how he was. He never gave me much more than a “fine,” or “I’m doing okay,” before asking the question back, but it quickly became a part of our daily routine.
I had never thought much about this interaction until the day that Mr. Fogarty pointed it out to the entire Wellness I class. Just a little bit of politeness, it turns out, goes a long way. After Mr. Fogarty exalted his praises for this habit, I made a point of doing it to everyone I met. In college, I introduced myself to my roommate and her parents, to all of my professors after the first or second class, to the head track and field coach, to the janitor who worked in my freshman year building -- just to name a few.
There is something oddly paralyzing about making that first contact. At a school as small as Oberlin, there are countless people that I see every Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday at the same time and in the same place. There are the people who refill their water bottles at approximately the same time as me during their Tuesday morning seminar, there is the personal trainer always walking laps on the track when I am warming up for lifting at 7:00 am on Mondays, the Slow Train barista who takes my coffee order each week when I stop by to do homework. I share no tangibly consequential moments with these people, but they are a part of my day and a part of my life all the same. I still feel awkward about extending my name and a greeting to them, but then I remember Mr. Fogarty’s advice.
“I don’t know if we’ve formally met, but my name is Lilah. Would you remind me of yours? I feel like I always see you here...”
Sometimes it isn’t well-received and I feel like a socially incompetent freak, but usually it’s the start of a small but pleasant “friendship.”
Obies can be described in many ways, but I will admit that one word that almost immediately comes to mind to describe us is “awkward.” I know that I often keep my eyes trained to the ground or straight ahead when I walk to class, not looking at the faces that pass me, and I’ve done the smooth “No, I’m totally not ignoring you, I’m definitely just answering a very important text message that I just happened to receive at exactly the moment when I might acknowledge you,” when passing someone I only kind of know. I feel that this phenomenon has been exacerbated by the prevalence of social media in our lives today, and its subsequent impact on how we interact socially. With all of the “friends” and “followers” I have on social media, I am constantly sharing information about my life to large swaths of people, on Oberlin’s campus and beyond. However, I only regularly share how my life is going -- the good and the bad, not just the Instagram highlight reel -- to my closest friends at Oberlin. Many of those names and accounts that follow me on social media belong to fellow students with whom I have never spoken; people who will like a photo or status of mine but be unable to meet my eyes when we cross paths in the athletic training room or library. This isn’t a call-out post though; I understand the awkwardness and I, too, am guilty of it. It’s strange to know so much about others’ lives, yet so little at the same time.
If the Review, Oberlin College’s student-run newspaper, asked me what advice I would leave the next generation of Obies, it would be the same piece that I left to the underclassmen of Melrose High School. Look people in the eyes, say hello, ask them how they’re doing. It’s a simple way to acknowledge someone else’s existence as a human being, and it can open you to all sorts of new relationships. Mr. Fogarty was one of those. He went on to become one of the most impactful mentors I had in high school, and was the teacher I asked to hand me my diploma at my high school graduation. The relationship we cultivated was incredibly important to me and still is to this day -- and it all started with a simple hello.