Stumbling In the Rush to Judgment

I often remind my kids, 14 and 16, not to stereotype people. Kids have a tendency to do that. So do parents, for that matter. I've also moved from the particular to the general faster than you can say, "Those with a tongue stud need not apply."

But every once in a while, something happens that underscores the fundamental wrongheadedness of rushing to judgment.

Take last Sunday, for instance.

After consuming combination plates of burritos and tacos, we prepared to leave a small Mexican restaurant: my husband and I with our kids, and our friends with their 17-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter. It was mostly families who had gathered around this eatery's simple formica tables.

As we got up to go, several pairs of eyes at the other tables lifted toward Liz, our friends' 15-year-old.

No one actually stared, except maybe a few four-year-olds. People were too polite for that. Instead, their eyes shot to Liz's head, then quickly returned to focus with an unnatural keenness on their refried beans.

"Punk," I overheard someone say, in the midst of a whispered torrent of Spanish.

In all fairness, Liz's head did look kind of strange. OK, really strange. Picture the Statue of Liberty discovering styling gel. Or a porcupine having a bad quill day.

But I can explain:

Some kids take piano; some play football; Liz and her brother belong to a troupe of young Irish dancers. In their spare time, they practice moving their feet with frenzied precision to the beat of Irish reels. Like the cast of "Riverdance," they stomp, kick, tap, and twirl, as they have since they were 9.

That afternoon, we'd seen them perform at a local community college. There would be another performance later that evening. In the meantime, they joined their parents and my family for supper.

Certain things characterize this form of folk dancing: rigid arms and upper torso, elaborately embroidered dresses, and also, for the girls, hair that falls in at least a hundred ringlets. Liz's strawberry-blond hair, left to its own devices, falls naturally into two.

Enter one large shopping bag full of curlers.

"Curlers" isn't the right word, exactly. These are hair-setting devices that look as though they might be spinoffs from the space program.

After decades of space travel, humans still may be no closer to colonizing other planets, but it appears we can thank NASA for a newfangled hair roller. They are red, blue, or green, about six inches long and half an inch wide. They're made of a firm yet flexible material most definitely not found in nature. At one end is a small loop. The other end comes to a soft point.

To set hair with these, one sections off a thin strand, places the end of it at the middle of the curler, then slowly winds the curler toward the scalp. When the entire strand is wrapped around the device, one pulls the curler's pointy end through the loop. After countless strands have been rolled like this, pointy ends are sticking up all over the place.

In the interval between performances, Liz's hair had taken a turn for the straight. It needed to be set. Fast. So before we entered the restaurant for supper, Liz knelt on the sidewalk while her mom and I and my daughter reached into the bag of curlers her dad was so expertly holding. The other three in our group helpfully took it upon themselves to point out strands we'd missed.

In less than five minutes, we transformed Liz from a sweet and freckled lass into The Human Launching Pad. She did look a little like a one-woman heavy-metal group. But really, this young lady was as far from punk as Killarney is from Katmandu.

So when I heard the word "punk," it seemed so unfair. But I wasn't about to walk over to a table of strangers and explain: "Actually, no, she's an Irish dancer with really straight hair."

IT did get me thinking, though, about people with purple mohawks and pierced eyebrows. Maybe, just maybe, there are explanations other than rebellion or self-expression in the extreme. After all, there is so much more to everyone than meets the eye. And the things that compel us to do what we do, say what we say, and twirl what we twirl are infinitely complex.

So here's a guideline, simple as the Golden Rule, which I, for one, intend to keep in mind the next time I encounter someone with, let's say, tattooed lips:

Before rushing to judgment, check for tap shoes.

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