I was leaving a bar once in Brooklyn when a stranger pushed past me towards the street. He turned to apologize but kept apologizing, and tried to take my hand to show he meant it, pressing in towards me as others in the crowd backed away. People who live in, let’s say, marginalized realities often seem to find me. They’ll corner me on buses and in cafes, they’ll try to convert me or warn me about conspiracies between pharmaceutical companies and space aliens. They often say they feel a connection.
This man nudged the guy I was with, jerked his head towards me with a smile and said “watch out for this one”. I half-laughed and asked “why? Am I so dangerous?”. He smiled. Nodded.
“I mean it, brother,” he said. “She looks people in the eyes.”
Eye contact is incredibly important in how we relate to one another but it’s hard to explain why. We might know that look in a child’s eye that means they want to be chased by a big monster or play peek-a-boo. We might know another look that means they’re about to key your car, or call you “wanker” as a joke. We might know that a look is a play cue, but can’t describe it more specifically than “you know, that one”. Many playworkers are convinced that they are somehow more interesting to children than other people, and I think it’s because of the practice we have in giving, receiving and interpreting those looks.
“They find me,” playworkers often say. And it seems true, when I see an infant spot a colleague and stare at them endlessly with very serious eyes. I wonder whether part of what makes us so attractive is simply that we return that initial eye contact. We see children, as people. And we smile to see them.
Lots of adults don’t, of course. I suspect their eyes gloss over children, the way I’ve felt some people’s eyes go past me, without registering. It’s a cold feeling, and I vaguely remember it feeling colder when I was small. Living in a world populated and governed by big people, you depend upon them for your welfare. It is frightening when they don’t seem to notice you, or worse, to notice you and turn away as if they smelt something rotten. On a related note, why are children still a social class that it’s okay to loudly hate?
Just as a look can be a play cue, eye contact can be the most fundamental kind of recognition. It’s the start of everything, a hello returned.