In the 1960s, when I was an undergraduate student at Yeshiva University, one of my good friends told me about a student group that traveled once a week to the home of Rabbi Avigdor Miller, a celebrated Torah scholar and ethicist. Once there, the revered rabbi would speak for about ten to fifteen minutes about a particular character trait and then give the students an assignment that would help us integrate that character trait into our daily lives.
I vividly remember one assignment. After hearing a talk on the maxim in Ethics of the Fathers about greeting people with a smile, he told us that our assignment was to smile at everyone we met, even if we did not feel like smiling, even when we felt that our smile was insincere and was only a pretense. He told us that, regardless of our inner thoughts, our smile would evoke a smile in everyone we meet.
Smiling is contagious, and so we experimented the following week, and what he said was true. Everyone to whom we smiled responded to us with a smile. It reminded me that we can create positive energy and optimism just by having a pleasant countenance. We can make the world a happier place if we share a smile with another human being.
This actually happens in A Little Princess, the captivating story of Sara Crewe, a little girl whose mother has died and is placed in a girls’ boarding school in New York when her father, a wealthy aristocrat, volunteers to fight for the British in World War I. The head of the school is Miss Minchin, a harsh, cold-hearted woman who puts on a façade of warmth and caring to entice parents to enroll at her school. Once enrolled, the girls encounter a boring, rigid, and stifling educational experience.
During the beginning of the semester, Sara receives notification that her father has died in battle. When Miss Minchin realizes that she will no longer receive tuition, she makes Sara a scullery maid in the school. In truth, Sara’s father has not died, and the dead body was misidentified. In time, he will find his way back to Sara, but in the interim Sara is challenged to survive in an environment devoid of love and connection.
What enables Sara to handle the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” is her essential kindly nature, her lively imagination, and her contagious smile. Most of the girls gravitate to her because of her happy demeanor, which gives them some respite from the harsh milieu of school. Her simple and genuine smile lifts the girls’ spirits as they endure their dull and spiritless education.
Before he left for war, Captain Crewe, Sara’s father, left her with a parting comment that remained with her and inspired her as she came to terms with the reality of being a maid in the school where she once was a pupil. He told her that she was a princess, and that made her feel special even if the people around her did not treat her as a princess. Sara possessed a healthy self-esteem and that made all the difference. When the girls at the school were emotionally spent from the bad-tempered words of Miss Minchin, Sara reminded them that they all were princesses, and Miss Minchin’s acerbic temperament could not change that.
A Little Princess reminds all of us that a positive attitude and a smile can help us navigate life successfully. In the midst of trials, it is important to focus on positive outcomes and not allow temporary adversity to dampen our spirits. Sara Crewe’s smile beckons us to look for the good in whatever life brings us.