Yes, by posting my ninth-grade yearbook picture, a pic I usually keep under lock and key, I’m taking one for the team—the team of all of you who hate any pictures of yourself from high school. This is not a look I would wish on anyone, especially a young high-schooler hoping for some degree of acceptance and popularity.
I did not enter high school thinking of myself as a nerd, but I certainly had all the essential elements of what I now consider to be an outdated definition of nerd-ity. There was no tape on my glasses, and even I knew better than to use a pocket protector (after all, that’s why I kept a pencil box handy), but my social awkwardness, painful lack of self-assurance, and absence of athletic ability led me to focus on the only thing I was good at—academics. Clearly, in the strict stratification of high school society, I had “nerd” written all over me (see picture above).
I attended Saint Augustine High School, an all-boys Catholic school in San Diego, and sitting in freshman orientation, I felt incredibly alone because there were boys from all over the county, but very few from my small parochial school. I immediately latched on to the first person who was nice to me, Ralph, a friend I kept for exactly as long as it took me to make several new friends and to realize that (if possible) Ralph was actually even less cool than I was (Sorry Ralph, I still feel bad about that one).
I eventually escaped high school with some sense that I had outgrown the “nerd” label. By the end, I had a solid and varied friend group, was near the top of the class, had become co-editor of the school newspaper, and become active in drama (OK, I know, that one is a toss-up).
Also, one of the men I worked with at the grocery store where I had a part-time job took an interest in me and helped me improve my wardrobe (no small task during the early 70’s), feel more confident around women, and introduce me to the world of hair stylists which helped me to get beyond the slicked-down Vitalis look that I had cultivated as a ninth-grader. Best of all was a conversion to contact lenses my junior year, and my purchase of a 1968 metallic blue Mustang during my senior year, a car that remains the coolest vehicle I have ever owned.
While none of these improvements gained me entrance to the “cool kids club” on campus, I did leave high school with good memories, some very good friends, and a sense of confidence about the future.
Years later, as I began teaching, I felt a special kinship to kids who felt isolated or awkward and it was clear that the term “nerd” still carried a heavy stigma. But, something happened as the years went by. Just as in The Princess Bride when Inigo Montoya has to chide the evil Vizzini over his repeated use of the word “Inconceivable!”, respectfully pointing out, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,” the word “nerd” began to have a much more positive connotation.
This elevation of word in our language has precedent. In the 1300’s the word “nice” used to mean “simple,” or “ignorant.” To be “fond” meant to be “foolish.” Likewise words can decline and develop a more negative sense. Today’s “villain” (a la Voldemort, Moriarity, or Dick Cheney) simply meant “servant” long ago.
I’m not sure when the tide began to change, although it seems to me that it had something to do with, of all things, Harry Potter. There may have been precursors, of course, but this book series created such a cult among all ages that it unleashed midnight book releases, midnight movie showings, kids and adults showing up to both dressed in full costume—a total identification with the characters, the setting, and the story. There was something about the immersion in a pop culture phenomenon that allowed kids (and adults) to proclaim themselves as “Harry Potter nerds” with a sense of pride, not a sense of shame.
Toward the end of my career in the classroom, increasingly kids began to self-identify as “nerds,” sometimes with a grimace and a shrug, but more often with a laugh, often surrounded by a gaggle of other fellow nerds—happy, well-adjusted, athletic, and popular. After all, who wouldn’t want to be around people who are passionate, knowledgeable, and involved in either singular or multiple pursuits?
The title now seems much more associated with people who have a passionate dedication to something. While often, these passions are directed at icons of pop culture (i.e. Game of Thrones, Marvel Comic films, Star Trek, musicians) it also bleeds into much more mainstream pursuits. I mean, have you ever gotten stuck with someone who is desperate to explain to you just how well his/her fantasy football team is doing?
As a young person, being cool must be exhausting. There seems to be a slavish adherence to both a dress and behavioral code. One has to pretend to be friends with all the clan members while quietly forming strategic alliances and living with the notion that with just one slip, you can be voted off the island, cut off as someone who “used to be cool.”
I had to watch Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film, Almost Famous, at least 8 times before I started to notice how important it was for everyone to be considered cool. They were all trying so hard, and even the members of the fictitious band, Stillwater, were plagued by insecurity about how they were perceived, begging William (Patrick Fugit) the teenaged rock critic, “Just make us look cool, man.” Later William’s mentor, Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) wisely counsels him, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you are uncool.”
It strikes me that being cool is just too much work. Give me nerd-dom any day. All one has to do is go out and buy a new action figure for her collection, stay at home on a nice day and watch “The Hunger Games” for the tenth time, don’t let a single summer go by without re-reading the Harry Potter books—all of them. Yes, it’s just fine to spend three valuable hours working out trades for your fantasy football team. Just please don’t bother me during the baseball season from 7AM to 8 AM while I’m having my coffee and carefully reading and analyzing the box scores from the night before. It’s important work. Someone has to do it.