Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Secret to Being a Nerd


Certain activities belonged to “nerds” – and wanna-be-cool high schoolers avoided them like the plague.

I was in the Marching Band – nerd heaven. Plus, I was skinny, wore braces, earned excellent grades, was hopeless at sports, and refused to break rules. Card-carrying nerd, for sure.

But, as an insider nerd, I knew a secret. We were not all the same type of nerds. Even within marching band, people were not all one variety. Louise was a hard-core determined flute/piccolo player who wanted to gain a spot in a professional symphony. Smart and determined, she simply seemed focused. Our trumpet player was also a jazz aficionado. Brian wanted to look and sound like Chuck Mangione, so he was often seen sporting a fedora and carrying his flugel horn.

At Thornwood High School, the theatre people were on the verge of nerd-dom, but some managed to be deemed socially acceptable. Certainly the Mathletes or Dungeons & Dragons Club were card-carrying members.

The word “nerd” was not used until the 1950s. The first use, of all places, was in a Dr. Seuss book. Although, the concept of a person who didn’t quite fit into the mainstream has always been present. For years, that one person who stood out has been called an “oddball,” a “geek,” “square,” or “drip.”

Like Marty McFly in the movie Back to the Future, nerds are often portrayed as extremely intelligent, socially awkward, and oddly dressed. The stereotype developed of a nerd with taped, horn-rimmed glasses, too-short pants, and pocket protectors. In the 1980s movie, Revenge of the Nerds, these stereotypical nerds decided they’d had enough and took on the popular crowd.

For most of us, high school was a highly-pressurized time to fit in. From what my daughter says, it still is today. That is why stores like Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister are incredibly successful. “Blend. Blend. Blend,” they seductively whisper. “Wear our perfume. Flash our label. Maybe then you can avoid nerd-dom.” Anyone who avoids sports – a nerd. The girls who don’t want to be cheerleaders – nerds. The labels can be oppressive.

But, as Whil Wheaton (newly-crowned King of the Nerds) said to a crowd at Comic-con. Being a nerd just means following what you are interested in. 


Actually, we are all (even those sporting a jersey or cheerleading skirt) unique. Some of us just keep it more under wraps. We may want to know everything there is to know about [fill in the blank]. For me, it was vintage fashion and books. I loved reading and authors and traveling and times of the past. Nerdy? Probably.

Even at age 16, I knew I would rather wear a 1940s gabardine jacket, than anything I can buy at the mall. Unusual? Certainly. But, as I grew older and moved on from high school to college to graduate school, I realized that the nerd label gradually disappeared. Suddenly, I was smart, determined, one-of-a-kind.

At the end of an episode from the animated series Freakazoid, they explain that nerds have huge potential:

..most nerds are shy ordinary-looking types with no interest in physical activity. But, what they lack in physical prowess they make up in brains. Tell me, who writes all the best selling books? Nerds. Who makes all the top grossing movies? Nerds. Who designs computer programs so complex that only they can use them? Nerds. And who is running for high public office? No one but nerds. ... Without nerds to lead the way, the governments of the world will stumble, they'll be forced to seek guidance from good-looking, but vapid airheads.

If you still have any doubt, look what nerds have achieved. Ivy League colleges are filled with card-carrying nerds. They have revolutionized, invented, dreamed, and succeeded. Bill Gates – the world’s most accomplished nerd – changed the world with his inventions. John Greene – whose novels fly off the shelves and movie made millions – is a self-proclaimed nerd.

When you get older, I can assure you that the nerd label slips gradually away. As you earn your degrees, leave behind lockers and backpacks, you find out that you are delightfully quirky, unusual, determined, focused, and (gasp!) often, extraordinarily gifted and smart.

My daughter is at a convention this weekend filled with teenagers who are slightly, well – okay – hugely, obsessed with anime and comics. To an outsider, to other high schoolers, they may all seem like nerds. But I know their secret. Beneath the crazy costumes (that took hours and hours of dedicated work to create), this hotel is filled with interesting, quirky, young people who aren’t afraid to swim against the stream.

That takes guts and courage. These “nerds” will go far.

Long live the wonderful, unique people who are labeled as “nerds” in school. May they fly their freak flag proudly, refuse to conform, and ever shine.


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