Misjudging by Appearances

Looks don't always predict behavior

As an electrical engineer for the City of San Diego, one day my job took me to Mission Bay Senior High School in Pacific Beach, California. A traffic signal there had to be modified, so I met with one of my technical assistants, Joe, a graying African-American.

We had been working into the early afternoon and finished in the nick of time, just when classes got out. A flood of rambunctious teenagers rushed out of the campus exit, some walking past us, others waiting for the signal to cross the intersection.

Joe and I had been discussing what was happening to kids in the year 2005 compared to our generation back in the 1950s. He had experience with teenage grandkids and that got him to comment on what he saw as the students streamed past.

“You see that one, her hair done in streaks so she looks like a pink and brown zebra. Or how about that gal wearing a guy’s tie worn as her belt and a necklace of white puka shells. They’d never get away with that in the 1950s. Ah, there’s Mr. Cool, with layered collars in seven different colors, wearing rimmed sunglasses,” he said with a smile. “He’d be mocked and bullied back then.”

“How about that freak show of spiked red tips on his otherwise shaved scalp, looking like the last of the Mohicans,” I said. We both laughed, staring in harsh judgment. I’d lived single and unmarried my whole life, without close contact with teenagers, so this was an eye-opener for me. But Joe, as a family man, had been exposed to the hottest teen fashion fads.

“You were a teenager once, so what’s the big deal?” he asked, pausing a moment to check a noisy module in the signal cabinet. He sensed I was amused.

“Well, as a kid I wasn’t much into keeping up with the hipster crowd in school, but I do remember the Elvis Presley hairdos, the 1953 Ford Roadsters, rolled up denims, the white bobby socks, and pleated skirts. I was a book nerd and secluded myself.”

“I’ll bet you weren’t the most popular kid in town,” he chuckled.

We chatted a few more minutes when suddenly we stopped talking. Our eyes were fixed on a girl coming out of the schoolyard. She had a dizzying array of colorful tattoos covering her arms and legs — only her face was clear except for silver lip, nose, and ear loops. Her purple hair was in dreadlocks that must have taken days to weave. A four-inch ornate silver cross hung from her neck, flashing in the sunlight. She was a sight to behold.

I wondered how she got past the school’s dress code and why she would go to all that trouble, except to attract attention. I speculated that she was a lonely child, bounced between foster homes, a victim of a nasty divorce maybe.

Joe was fixated on her as she passed. I had turned away to avoid embarrassment.

“What are you looking at?” she snapped, confronting his unabashed stare.

In a timed response, as if he were a standup comedian onstage, applying a Louisiana drawl, Joe deadpanned, “Ah don’t know… Ah’m still tryin’ to figure that out.”

She grimaced and walked away in a huff, no doubt insulted by his candor. We both watched her approach a crowded corner to wait for the “Walk” light.

Joe had returned his attention to the controller, while I kept my eye on the signal light. I could see the Goth girl in my side vision as another student’s books fell to the sidewalk next to her, just as the pedestrian light came on. She had to choose between helping the boy or crossing before the light changed against her. She chose to stay and help him gather his books and scattered papers. They were left there alone as the other students crossed the street.

I tapped Joe on the shoulder and we watched her help the boy in distress.

“What are we looking at now, Joe?”

“Ah have to figure after seeing that, maybe she’s an angel in disguise.”


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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