I wish I had a dime for every time I was told “don’t judge a book by its cover.” I’d have at least $10 now. If you break the statement down, we all know what it means. You can’t judge a book by its cover, because sometimes the cover is ugly. Just because a cover is ugly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the words.
I think the whole concept is a little too participation trophy for me, because sometimes an ugly cover is trying to tell you something: Don’t waste your time. Then again, sometimes the cover is FANTASTIC and masks hundreds of pages of misery. I picked up Beartown by Fredrik Backman (sorry, sir) because the cover was beautiful. And there was some quote of praise on the front by someone more important than me. What I got was hundreds of pages about hockey, hockey sticks, hockey players, hockey towns, drab weather fit only for hockey, hockey-obsessed men, followed by some punk teens doing things not worthy of hockey’s honor. I quit before the punk teen stuff (I had flipped ahead looking for a glimmer of hope) and threw that sucker away. I didn’t even donate it. I care that much about other people who shop at Goodwill.
I judged that book by its cover and got burned. So I guess you shouldn’t.
But what about people?
I grew up with a beautiful mother. I heard that I lot. “Your mom is so pretty.” When I was little, people still dressed up to do everything. If I had an ear infection, my mom would put on a dress, hose, and heels. She was never caught outside the house without the makeup that would take her 30 minutes to apply. I was mesmerized by her makeup process, because I loved the smell of the creams she applied. And I loved that her foundation started as 400 tiny brown dots on her face. She started out like a plague and ended up like a princess.
Then there was me.
I struggled to transition out of the plague thing. I didn’t want to. I didn’t see the point. My mother regularly offered to take me shopping.
“No, thank you, I’m good,” I would say.
“But, Missy, other girls your age…” she would follow up.
My answer usually ended in a shrug. I didn’t want to go shopping. I had white t-shirts, shorty shorts from the 1970s, slouchy tube socks with double navy striping, and dirty canvas sneakers. What else did I need? When I got into middle school, I didn’t ask her if I could shave my legs. She asked me if I please would. I mean, I guess so. Sheesh. That whole thing started and ended on the picnic table in the back yard with a single bladed razor and a garden hose. It took like a week.
But I’m jumping ahead. I didn’t even consider changing my appearance until 1982. I didn’t make an actual change until 1983. Today’s Snappshot is from May 29, 1979. I was 8 years old. The school year was less than 2 weeks from being over, which meant a couple of things: (1) It was hotter than McDonalds coffee, and (2) they were cramming in the last of the field trips, projects, and performances.
May 29 was the last day of the gifted program called College for Kids. Back then, they actually rewarded a person for being gifted. Now it just means extra worksheets and higher-level testing. We spent one day a week on the campus of Florida A & M (FAMU). We took a bus there, spent the day with our best friends, and got to learn about things like exotic animals and cinematography. I loved it.
I don’t remember much about May 29, 1979. If my mother hadn’t snapped this photo, there would be no record of the day at all. But this picture tells quite a story.
My mom labeled the photo with the date and the description that it was the “College for Kids Pet Show.” And she brought my mutt, Benji, to be shown off. It’s hard to know what to focus on. The dog is clearly on a string that we found on the floor of our garage, not a real leash. He is embarrassingly furry. He never once got a haircut from anyone but us. As for me, I’ve seen better shoes on people who live in cardboard enclosures. The tube socks, though, are the real shining stars here. Two fat navy stripes that just scream, HEY I’M WEARING TUBE SOCKS. Those socks announced my arrival a good 6 minutes before people noticed the shorts or the hair. Once my fellow students got past the cover, I’m sure our book was equally disappointing.
“Hey everyone, I wanted to introduce you to my dog, Benji. He’s 2 ½ years old. He’s a mutt. We have no idea what mix he is, but we think there’s poodle in there somewhere. He lives in a cardboard box in the utility room of our garage, right next to the hot water heater. We got him when he was a puppy and named him after the popular film star dog, Benji. Are there any questions?”
“Does your dog have any special skills or tricks?” one kid asked.
“No,” I shook my head. “No, he does not.”
“Does he shake?”
Nope. Doesn’t shake.
Come when he’s called?
Sometimes. If I’m holding pork tenderloin.
Does your dog do anything?
He can play dead.
Benji and I deserved each other and I know he was just a little bit jealous of my socks. But one day in 1983, I looked down at those socks and saw for the first time what my mother had seen from the regrettable moment she bought them and handed them to me. I saw them. And when she offered again to take me shopping, as she had 35 times before, this time I said yes.
I remember my mother’s joy at my response and how quickly she put together a shopping trip to save my life. She was radiating the glee she felt. She was thinking about the Christmas cards she could send out next year. She was getting ahead of herself.
We bought 3 outfits that day that she and I were mutually pleased with. We bought two pairs of shoes to replace the canvas ones I had worn every day of my life since my third birthday. I put one of the new outfits on for the first day of 7th grade spring semester. And I put one of the new pairs of shoes at the bottom of my picnic-table-freshly-shorn legs. I looked down at myself and said, YES. This is good.
But my old shoes were sitting in the corner next to my bed. Man, those things were comfy. I didn’t have a lot of time to make decisions before heading to the bus stop, so I scooped up my old shoes and shoved them into my back pack and skipped downstairs to eat breakfast.
“Oh, Missy,” my mom said, clapping her hands together under her chin. “You look darling.”
Bless her. I did not look darling. But I had stuck my toe into the land of mary janes and pastel-colored flats, and that was enough to give a mother like mine hope.
That morning, I navigated some unwanted attention from people who had seen the generic t-shirts, gym shorts, and tube socks for the last 8 years. I shrugged them off and continued on my way. Before the first bell rang, I took the most direct path possible to my locker and stuck my old faithful sneakers on the top shelf. Then I headed to 1st period. All I could think about in 1st period was my shoes. The ones in my locker singing a melody of loneliness and betrayal in a tone only I could hear. They were missing me as much as I missed them. I looked down at the pink plastic flats under my desk as the teacher rambled on and on about some place in Europe. Those shoes were the worst. It was like binding my feet up with thumb tacks and duck tape.
All I could think about in 2nd period was my shoes. The new ones. From the devil. The old ones. Waiting for me in my locker. Sheesh.
All I could think about in 3rd period was my shoes. And by then I’d had enough. So when the bell rang at the end of class, I slung my pack over my shoulder and took off running toward my locker. I ran like I was recovering from a hip replacement, because one flat kept slipping off at the heel and the other was vengefully pinching the top of my foot. But I managed. And I kept running. I dodged a maze of students and staff and yanked open my locker to see those canvas lovelies sitting there at eye level. FINALLY. I pulled off the pink flats and threw them into the bottom of the locker. I pulled the canvas sneakers off the top shelf and—
Wait a minute.
I forgot my tube socks.
Ah, well. No matter. I wore them sockless.
Thirty-seven years have passed since that initial foray into the tiniest of transformations. And my mother continued to nudge me along as she sent out substandard holiday photos of her family’s fashion eccentricities. And 37 years later, I guess I do believe that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Whether or not you can judge a person by their tube socks is going to be entirely up to you.
But I think maybe you can…