DEAR ABBY: I recently learned a lesson about not judging a book by its cover. A young man and his divorced mother moved into our quiet neighborhood of mostly retirees and young couples who have not yet started families. When we first laid eyes on the young man, we saw a guy with shoulder-length hair dressed all in black – complete with black fingernail polish and black eyeliner. Everyone thought the worst: “Oh, no! A heathen devil-worshipper!” A few months later, he presented himself in ragged jeans, a flannel shirt, his head completely shaved. Again we thought the worst: “He’s turned into one of those neo-Nazi skinheads!”

I later learned from his mother that her son is a sociology major at a university about 200 miles from here. (He had to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina as a large portion of the campus was destroyed.) The black attire we first saw was for a costume party he was attending that evening. He grows his hair long to donate to Locks of Love, which uses it to make wigs for cancer patients who have lost their hair during chemo, hence the shaved head.

He spends his summers working with groups going to underprivileged countries to teach the children to read and write. He also goes with Doctors Without Borders to help inoculate people who have never had the basic childhood vaccinations against rubella, tetanus, etc.

I feel completely ashamed of myself for forming such an opinion about this wonderful young person simply from his appearance at a distance. I have since gotten to know him during his weekend visits home to see his mother and have discovered what an intelligent, compassionate, giving individual he is, and I am honored to have him as a neighbor.

Please warn your readers not to make the same mistake I and the rest of my neighbors made in judging a worthwhile young man by his appearance at first glance. – ASHAMED IN BRANSON, MO.

With pleasure. Your letter is a timely one because it applies not only to individuals who dress differently, but also to people of different races and religions. It illustrates that hand in hand with ignorance walks prejudice.

DEAR ABBY: I’m a 14-year-old girl with a problem. I am starting high school as a freshman. Last year I got into more trouble at school than I ever have been in my entire life. I even got kicked out of a program that’s supposed to help students get into a good college. My grades went down, and I have been talking back not only to my teachers but also to my mother. Mom thinks it’s because my father is dead.

Can you tell me something that will help me stop talking back? – TALKING BACK IN VIRGINIA

I have a couple of suggestions that might help. The first is, because your father passed away within the last couple of years, your mother may be right. If it’s true that your problem is repressed anger over your father’s death, then counseling, or a grief support group, might help you to express feelings in an acceptable way.

Another effective way to express your emotions would be to start a journal and write in it every night. A journal is a healthy place to dump anger and frustration, as well as confide your hopes, dreams and victories. The more of your feelings you get “out,” the fewer your outbursts will be – and that’s a promise.

Dear Abby is written by Abigail Van Buren, also known as Jeanne Phillips, and was founded by her mother, Pauline Phillips. Write Dear Abby at or P.O. Box 69440, Los Angeles, CA 90069.

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