I first heard the idiom “You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover” as a second grade student at Southview Elementary School in Bartlesville Oklahoma. It was an important lesson in tolerance and kindness from one of my favorite teachers. The origin of the phrase dates back to 1944, where the phrase “You Can’t Judge a Book by its Binding” appeared in the African journal “American Speech.” The phrase became even more widespread after it appeared in the 1946 murder mystery, “Murder in the Glass Room.”
In the fall of 1988, I entered the University of Tulsa to begin my college education. I moved into the honors dorm and received an invite to a freshman social event. Except for my roommate Jill, I knew no one on campus and I was excited to make new friends. I stood in my closet and contemplated what to wear. Another famous idiom ran through my mind. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. I selected my favorite red dress and a pair of silver sparkly earrings. The freshman mixer was held in the student center lounge across from the cafeteria. I felt nervous but excited as I entered the room of strangers and settled into one of the oversized plush chairs scattered around the student lounge. A charming petite blonde named Amanda stood up and welcomed everyone. She handed out slips of paper and asked us to write down our names. The rules of the icebreaker game were simple. Draw a name and based on your first impression of the person, guess their college major. Amanda passed around a Tulsa baseball cap to collect the paper slips and then drew the first name. A tall muscular guy in the corner raised his hand and Amanda’s eyes lit up. “You better be on our football team,” she said with a smile. “Physical education?” she asked. Bingo. Freshman linebacker for the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes. After a few rounds of the game, a young man sitting on the floor at the edge of the room called out my name. I shyly raised my hand and briefly made eye contact with him. He was handsome with dark hair that almost covered his eyes. He studied me and seemed stumped. At least four seconds passed and then he blurted out “Las Vegas show girl.” A titter of awkward laughter rolled through the room and I felt my face turn bright red. Showgirl? You don’t need a college degree to work in Vegas. My mind raced. Half of my brain prepared an indignant reply and the other half braced for more embarrassment. I answered him in a quiet voice. “No, that’s not right,” I said. Duh. Another awkward pause followed and then he tried to justify his guess. “Well, you do have really long legs,” he added. Now he was blushing and everyone in the room laughed. Too mortified to even speak, I studied the floor intently. Amanda rescued me and tried to sound supportive. “What is your major?” she asked sweetly. “Chemistry,” I said. The room erupted in more boisterous laughter followed by a series of complaints and rants about chemistry from several people in the room. “Oh God, I hated chemistry, that class was so hard, it was the worst. Why would anyone major in chemistry?” I returned to my dorm room that night and prayed I would never see that cute boy again. I blamed the red dress. It turned his brain to mush, but in hindsight I was too hard on him. I do love fashion and I love to dance, so his first impression of me was not completely wrong. My friend Alan borrowed the infamous red dress a few years later to wear on Halloween and he made a fabulous drag queen. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover but if you look inside, you are sure to find even more to love.