Nanci Griffith "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" Helps Me Not Judge a Book By Its Cover

Sometimes we need reminding that people are not always what they seem.
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My wife teaches French at university. Before we started a family she was also the Director of the Belgium Program - the universities study abroad program. This meant that for three months in the fall we would take about 30 students to Europe. It was as fun and exciting as that sounds but also exhausting and infuriating. We saw some amazing things and visited truly wondrous countries and cultures, yet we also lived with 30 students who were loud, argumentative, and who often emanated smells that would curl the nose on the Pope.

For the most part our students were pretty well behaved, but there were always a few who just got under my skin and drove me crazy. It was actually pretty interesting to meet the students just before we left and to make the sort of quick judgments we tend to make when we meet people and then to have those judgments altered for better or worse as the days tick by in close quarters.

Our first year my wife and I went to Belgium a week before everybody else to get the place spruced up and to purchase our food supply and as such I didn't actually meet any of the students until they landed in Brussels. Most of them seemed pretty nice, if nervous and excited, but there was this one girl, Allison, who I knew, right from my first sighting, that she would be trouble. She was a very pretty blonde who had perfectly quaffed hair and a very hip style. She carried herself like she was queen of the world and I just knew from looking at her that she was gonna give me a hard time the whole semester long.

My intuition proved correct pretty quickly. To get the students acclimated to a new culture and to get them used to traveling in a land where they don't speak the language we take a few day trips together during the first few weeks. We'd go somewhere a few hours a way, walk the students through some museum or cathedral or whatever local attraction, explain their importance and then give them a couple of hours on their own with a specified meeting time to be back at the train station. Allison was always the last person to come back and she was always late. Always causing us to be behind schedule.

For our first really big trip we spent a week in Paris. On our first day there we took the students on a walking tour of many of the big sites. We walked past the Eiffel Tower, Les Invalides, Napoleon's tomb, Place de la Concourde, the Louvre, Notre Dame and a few other places. The students were all excited to see their first really big attractions in a city they've heard so much about. We'd usually stop at each attraction and let everybody take pictures and goof for a bit before moving on.

The tour took several hours and it wasn't until we made it back to our hotel that we realized Allison was missing. We were never at any one place long enough for anybody to really wander off so we never thought to do a head count. Her friends pondered when they saw her last and every one was pretty sure that was at the Jardin des Tulleries a lovely park in front of the Louvre. We sent them off on a scouting mission, but they returned empty handed.

By this point I was freaking out. Our first big trip and in the first day we've already lost a student. More of her friends went out to retrace our steps, but it was getting dark and Paris after dark is no place for a young blonde girl from America.

After she was missing for a couple of hours I looked out the window and saw her casually walking towards the hotel. I was furious. How dare she just wander off and them come back with a saunter. But I held my tongue, I knew I needn't curse her out before I figured out what had happened. I told her I was glad she was back and calmed down when I could see how panicked she had actually been.

Turns out in the garden she had wandered off just for a minute to look at something and when she came back we had left. Not knowing which direction we had gone, and assuming we'd miss her eventually she sat down in a chair and waited for us. After a bit, when we had still not come for her, she took her shoe and wrote in the sand behind her chair, in great big letters "SOS." I guess she thought maybe the Air Force would see it and rescue her or something. She waited a bit more and then a couple of young French guys came over to her. They spoke a little English and when she told them her story they told her she should probably go and find us as it was getting dark and the garden was no place to be alone at night.

Using more wits that I had previously given her she retraced her steps. Luckily that's pretty easy to do in Paris as there are all these enormous landmarks to follow. Slowly but surely, and after more than a few missteps she found her way back to the hotel. After that we assigned a couple of people to watch her at all times.

A few weeks later we traveled to Leuven to look at the majestic Adoration of the Mystic Lamb which is an enormous altar piece that hangs in the cathedral and is considered to be a world treasure. They have a copy of the piece in what would be its normal place in the cathedral but to see the actual work you have to pay a couple of Euros and enter into a closed room. Allison was the only student who paid to see the original. Everyone else, without fail quickly walked through the cathedral and then went to play outside. When the meet-up time came Allison was still looking at the piece. I had to force her to leave. She was visibly upset, especially as we waited on the steps of the cathedral a good ten minutes while we figured out how to get to our next destination. Allison and I had a good talk about the altar piece and discussed what we had each learned from the audio guides.

It was then I knew I had to change my mind about the girl. She hadn't been late all those times because she was a bad student, or flighty or just irritating, she had been late because she was truly immersed in the culture around her. Out of all our students she was the one truly interested in the things she was supposed to be interested in and not just running around Europe looking for a good time. After that she became one of my favorite students and I learned to appreciate her lapse attitude in time in exchange for her true interest in the art and culture she was there for.

I think we need that from time to time - a good kick in the teeth to remind us that not everyone is as they seem, and if you get to know people a little bit more you might find they'll surprise you in all sorts of fantastic ways. Or at least I do.