I’ve always lived something of a double life. Growing up, I did “normal kid” things like play football, make out with girls behind the gym, race cars, drink whiskey and get in fights. I also did nerdy things like play D&D, attend “gifted” level classes, build computers from parts, “letter” in theater and play videogames. As a result of this bi-polarity of interest and experience, I may not have felt like it or been treated like it, but I was and always will be a nerd.
I never stopped to think about what my friends who were into geeky things would think about my other activities, or what the cool kids would think about my geekiness. To me, it was just all part of life, and I was living it, unconcerned about the social ramifications. But I was definitely a nerd, no doubt about it.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that my experience was fairly unique. Most kids find themselves shoehorned very early into one social strata or another, for better or worse, and quite a few rail against this mechanism. Most kids who consider themselves geeks (or are branded so by their peers) feel stigmatized and persecuted and carry that trauma well into their adulthood. I recognize I may be talking to a lot of folks like that now, and believe me, I understand.
My own brief experience with teen social trauma started and ended my first year of what we call “middle school” in the states, grades 6-8. I was tormented by the school bully in the school yard, in the lunch line and on the bus. Finally, after one too many purple nurples, titty twists, knees to the gut and shoves in the back, I faced off against the kid.
We were in the aisle of the school bus. He’d shoved me, and I’d had it. I turned around and shoved back. He stared. I stared back. He casually waved his hand in front of my face and sent my gigantic, plastic glasses flying to the back of the bus where they shattered. Instinctively, I fell to my hands and knees searching for my shattered spectacles. There was laughter. I was humiliated. Broken glasses in hand, I slunk to the back of the bus and tried my best to disappear.
In the movie version, I would have punched that kid in the face, but that’s not how life works. He had more practice than me, was bigger, and it didn’t take a genius to see that my glasses had already been broken at the bridge and glued – inexpertly – back together. He bested me, as bigger kids usually do to smaller kids, and I carried that scar for a long time.
And then I got over it.
I realized that the kid could have done me some serious harm, but didn’t. And then, at some point, I noticed that the harassment had stopped. I may not have gotten in the licks that Movie Me would have, but the result was the same: Mr. Bully had moved on to another victim, and I had developed a little self-respect.
From that point on, my school experience became an adventure I look back on fondly, rather than the painfully traumatic endurance run it seems to have been for many of my adult peers with shared, geeky interests. I’m not going to be so condescending as to suggest that everyone’s problems can be solved so easily (nor really that all of mine were), but I can honestly look back on that time of my life as the point at which I stopped caring what other people thought of me and decided to be myself and stand up for my right to do so.
When people use the words “geek,” “dork,” or “nerd,” I think back to that encounter with the school bully and wonder, “Is that how he saw me?” Was I victimized because I was different? Would I have been pushed around so much if I’d been wearing a sports jersey, or carried a little less weight (or a little more muscle)? Unfortunately, the answer is probably “yes.”
Kids growing up today have a little more latitude in these areas. Children are still as cruel as they’ve always been, but geeky activities like playing videogames don’t carry the stigma they used to. There’s even a growing trend to “own” that moniker and make it a rallying cry. Websites about videogames, television shows about computers and well-intentioned advocates of the geek lifestyle have all made their mark on this movement, but the real heroes are you: the geeks, dorks and nerds who wear those badges with pride, unafraid to express your love of all things nerdly.
Well done, you guys. For you, we dedicate this week’s magazine to the cause.