I was walking through the mall when I noticed someone staring at me across the crowded corridor. She looked somewhat familiar, with long brown hair and scrutinizing eyes. I’d only made eye contact for a second by accident, but suddenly she was coming toward me. Her face transformed into a bright smile as she greeted me.
“Hi!” I smiled back trying to hide my confusion. My brain was working hard to piece together where I knew her from. Who was she? How did I know her?
She was my best friend’s step cousin, whom I’d met once or twice before a few months prior. I thought it’d clicked in time for me to save face, but I heard back from my best friend later on that I’d completely ignored her cousin at the mall. The cousin claimed I acted all weird and seemed embarrassed to see her. But I simply didn’t recognize her.
This has been a common occurrence in my life. Just last year, I met my school-appointed mentor for coffee and totally hit it off. We had a great chat about life and agreed to keep in contact. A few weeks later, I saw her again at a conference. But I didn’t know it was her. In my mind, she was just some lady with beautiful bold lipstick I admired. Only later did I realize where she was from. Even after my email apologizing for not greeting her at the conference, she never attempted to meet up with me again.
The worst was on the first day of a new module of the course I was teaching. I met 20 new students, and while most of them were quiet, I really got along with Tim and Sophie, who were seated in the front row. I taught 3 periods to the same group of students for a total of four and a half hours.
At the end of the class, I dismissed them, then turned my back to erase the board. A complete stranger tapped me on the shoulder, catching me a bit off guard. Confident he was just another student from a different class, I listened as he asked me, “what room will we be in tomorrow?”
For the previous month, I had been teaching in a smaller room. That morning, my students and I had had to switch rooms last minute because my old one was too snug to fit my whole class. I asked, “well, who’s your teacher?”
The look on his face instantly revealed my mistake. I noticed just slightly too late that he was wearing the distinctive silver coat that had hung on the back of Tim’s chair for the past four and a half hours. All he’d done was put on a coat and my brain had glitched completely. I didn’t recognize him at all.
It’s happened to me time and time again. Strangers waving and greeting me, I always just smile back regardless. When my best friend joined instagram, I had to double check that her tiny profile pic was her. Watching movies is a particularly annoying challenge, especially when there are several characters that look the same.
Once, someone took a picture of me from a bizzare angle and all of a sudden my nose was larger and my features all changed. When I showed this picture to people to emphasize how it didn’t look like me, I got a steady stream of, “no that’s exactly what you look like.” So I don’t even know what I look like. I could never date someone online just out of fear that I’d accidentally catfish them.
When I finally heard the term, “prosopagnosia” or more accurately, “face-blindness” a lot of these experiences began to make sense. I’m not just dopey, I have a slight cognitive facial perception disorder that makes me seem dopey. Or rude. But I’m not the only one. Lots of people are bad with faces.
I think my dad is too. A few years ago, while I was still living at home, I went for a bike ride. I put on shorts, a bright green t-shirt that made my tan appear ten times darker, and I tied my hair up in a high ponytail for the first and only time in at least 20 years. I decided to pop into the local liquor store before heading back home and spotted my dad in the check out line on his way home from work.
Naturally, I approached him with a casual greeting and got to see firsthand the look of confusion that I so often feel. He didn’t recognize me. We lived in the same house, and he didn’t recognize his own daughter. Who he sees every day. He looked so shocked and so guilty. But I get it. I live it.
So if we ever cross paths, and I’m supposed to “know” you, please don’t be offended if I look at you like I’ve never seen you before in my life. Because in my brain, I probably haven’t.