Embracing the Nerd Within

Paul Graham's article, titled "Why Nerds are Unpopular," is a fun and fascinating read. (Thanks to thegameiam for pointing it out a long time ago. I'm way behind on reading blogs since I started blogging more and decided to replace coffee with sleep.) You should read it and think about what it says, especially if you interact with high school students a lot, or if you ever were or currently are a high school student.

His thesis is that the reason that nerds aren't popular is because they want to be smart more than they want to be popular. I agree and don't know why I didn't think of this myself! I just wish there was a way to prevent the sheer anguish of all of those years of rock-bottom unpopularity, or at least to tell kids in a way that they can understand that it won't be like that forever. Not that I, uh, know anything about that personally.

No. I was always the hippest chick1 around. I wasn't that girl who sat on the side of the playground reading books throughout third and fourth grade instead of jumping rope like the other girls. I wasn't that girl who only had one person show up to her 10th birthday party. (Thanks, SHP! How sad would it have been if no one had shown up?) I wasn't that girl who always got picked last for teams in gym class so often that the gym teacher felt bad and just assigned her to a team without waiting for her to be picked last.

No, really, from a social perspective, being me pretty much sucked from third grade through sixth grade. Totally sucked. It started, actually, in second grade when my freakin' banged up metal Sesame Street lunchbox (my God, how not cool is that?) fell open and its super not-cool contents, packed by my health-conscious mother, spilled out onto the lunchroom floor: peanut butter sandwich, carrot sticks, graham crackers, and home-popped popcorn.* Where were the artificial colors? The artificial flavors? The gooey gushy fruit snack wrinkle roll-ups? It only got better in 3rd grade, when a classmate asked me why I never got any new clothing. (I was wearing the purple corduroy jumper that I was quite fond of. I apparently wore it too often.) It's been 18 years and I still remember how that felt. The same girl invited every other girl in our class to her birthday party that year except me, and when I approached their lunch table one day she said, "Shhhhh! ALG's not invited." What I want to call her these many years later is not suitable for this family-friendly blog, and, anyway, I shouldn't be cursing at all. (I sometimes feel like people who curse a lot don't have better words to use, and I have much better words to use.)

For some reason, I had a very strong sense of self from a young age (which I only know because I started keeping a journal when I was nine years old, and when I reread the journals now, I very much see my current self in those childish yearnings2), and that helped me figured out that they only picked on me because it made them feel better. I didn't really understand why it made them feel better about themselves, but I saw that it did. I also figured out pretty early on that unless I stood up and tried to protect the other people3 that the cool cats picked on, I was no better than they. Of course, standing up for the even-less-popular-than-I girls only made it worse for me, but on some level, I didn't care. Some level deeper than that cried into my pillow at night. Not even for a millisecond do I regret any of the social decisions that I made then, despite the tear-stained pillows. I do wish that I had been able to make and execute those decisions and others without feeling like the social consequences were almost unbearable.

Things got better in 7th grade when all the not-cool girls banded together and decided to snub the cool girls. They wouldn't acknowledge us in the hallways? Fine, we wouldn't acknowledge them either. Somehow, we even managed to elect me 9th grade class president (generally a simple personality contest, but clearly not in this case). It was the vindication of the not-cool against the cool. Collective decision making at its best, really. A few years later, I also started becoming friends with some boys, which generally worked out much better than trying to be liked by the other girls.

By late in high school I had more close friends and was happier. I was still terribly uncoordinated and didn't wear the right clothing (at all) or do the right things with my hair (at all) or have the smoothest social skills around or get invited to all the parties, but it mattered less because I found things to keep me busy that didn't require those particular skills. Most nerds eventually discover those things that they enjoy that don't require the skills that make one popular in school. From the ages of 12-18, I worked on the school literary magazine and school newspaper and I read Joseph Soloveitchik and books on feminist linguistics and Mesechet Kilayim and Scientific American in my free time. I wrote a lot and became a very quick typist. I published short pieces in a regional teen newspaper almost monthly for almost six years, acquired two pen pals, won a book review contest at the local public library, played around on the computer, became good friends with the school librarian (who wrote me a letter of recommendation that helped me win a summer fellowship, where I was also nerdier than the average participant, but where I met some of the people who are my best friends and most trusted mentors today), and maintained correspondences with my grandmother and others. I wrote an essay about feminism and halacha that made its way around and that was commented upon favorably by Rabbi Professor Isadore Twersky, ztz"l, about a year before he passed away.

Several years later, in college, sitting around shooting the breeze over a lazy lunch in the dining hall, talk turned towards childhood social traumas, and we all had our stories about being the only kid not invited to a birthday party and being excluded at lunch tables. "Ha, ha, ha!" We all had a good laugh then, as if none of it had mattered. Of course it mattered. If it didn't, why were we talking about it so many years later, and why would I be writing about it now?

Back to Paul Graham's article, I know that I wanted to be smart far more than I wanted to be popular. Like most people, I always wanted to do whatever I was good at, and I was always much better at being smart than at being popular. I didn't think I would ever be good at being popular, so I didn't even try to be mediocre at it, really.4 I spent all of the time that I would have spent trying to become popular, thinking and writing.

I don't think I'm the worse off for it at all. Once I had more friends, I became more socialized and thus more sociable. I turned out fairly self-confident and mostly able to hold my own in the public sphere, despite years of reading books on the side of the schoolyard instead of playing with the other kids. I'm only really different from people who were popular as youngsters in that I carry around this memory of the trauma and that I don't work as hard as other people do at fitting in. And I use bigger words sometimes.

In fact, at this point in my life, I'm happy to embrace the nerd, the geek, and the person who questions the values of the majority culture, because those characteristics all come from a place deep inside that is inherently me.5 I am happy to be someone who finds the New York City electric grid interesting, someone who longs for Tuesday to come so she can read the Science Times, someone who knows more about pop culture from before 1950 than after, and someone who does serious research and finds out all there is to know about grain weevils when that's relevant to her life (don't worry, they're all gone now!). Feel free to think I'm weird if you want. I've made peace with the fact that the music I like tends towards jazz, reggae, showtunes, and folk, and away from most of what's on the radio. I've mostly made peace with the fact that when people talk about current movies and TV shows, I often have no idea what they're talking about. Sometimes I just keep quiet (that is, keep the nerd/geek/social misfit under wraps), because I can usually pass as a normal person these days...as long as I don't open my mouth. Mostly, though, I am a normal person these days, because the people I hang out with also don't know much about what's on TV or at the movies, and we all have fun discussing the New York City electric grid together.

Seriously, it's good to be a grown-up. Don't let anyone ever convince you otherwise.


* I will, God willing, one day send my future children to school with similar or even healthier snacks. What are parents who pack their kids chock full of sugar thinking? During the school day, no less! I am, indeed, turning into my mother.
1. As a feminist, I reserve the right to use words like "chick" and "girl" or "grrrl" self-referentially, but you can't use them to refer to anyone except yourself. No exceptions. I know how to use "chick" in a properly ironic way, whereas your use of the word "chick" might be drawing some kind of ridiculous equivalence between me and a baby chicken. Totally unacceptable!
2. I've kept a private journal continuously since I was 9. I originally wrote it in every day, but soon realized that I didn't have enough of interest to say to write in it everyday, and I also didn't want to write daily because then I'd feel guilty skipping a day. So I decided to only write in it when the mood struck, which means that I've sometimes written in it every two days, sometimes weekly, and sometimes only every six months, depending on what's been going on in my life. I think that years of journal writing made me a better writer of all things, not just journal entries. This hypothesis is supported by neurologist Alice Flaherty, who thinks that the reason that some people are better artists or better writers is because they enjoy doing it, so they do it a lot more than anyone else and then they become better at it than other people. One of the reasons that so many great writers and artists had mental illnesses such as manic-depression is because mania can make you produce a much greater output, which makes you better just because you do it more. Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt make a similar claim in this New York Times Magazine piece from this past Sunday.
3. Namely, the recent Russian immigrant girls. They were the only people who were the butt of more jokes than I was.
4. Or maybe I did try and I failed at it. But I don't think I tried too hard. I think, instead, I decided that the popular girls were idiots and so I was, um, self-righteous and dismissive, which obviously killed any chances I ever had of being popular.
5. I will admit that I'm largely happy doing that because I'm at a point now where I can mostly choose who I spend my time with, and I mostly spend my time with other people who are like me, that is, tending towards the geeky or the nerdy. That is, I spend my time with really smart people who are doing cool things with their lives. (I'm always surprised to discover someone among my friends who wasn't a social outcast at some point.)


Imma, ALG's mother said...

Gosh! I had no idea you were upset because you weren't in the "in" group! I do remember you saying, when you were at a new school for 3rd grade, that it was annoying that kids called out your first name, but were actually looking for another (popular) girl in the class. I guess I've never been in a clique of popular people and, since it has never bothered ME, I didn't give your feelings the proper attention. I'm sorry. I wasn't raised in a household where making a conscious effort to be popular was particularly encouraged, so I never realized not being popular was a traumatizing experience.

David said...

Excellent and thoughtful.

Feel free to strike up a conversation about the NY electrical grid down here anytime :)

btw, regarding note#1: is it okay to refer to Kacy as a "chick magnet"? (to the point that if I plugged her in, she'd be a chick-electromagnet) - even if there were a momentary linguistic confusion regarding which use of the word "chick" was meant, both would be correct (i.e. Kacy is a "north" pole, and women are "south" poles; the baby birds clearly are also "north" poles, as they flee whenever Kacy is brought near...) ;)

ER said...

Thanks for this, ALG. It's a great post, and hard to imagine that it doesn't resonate with just about everyone I know. BTW, the only principle I've ever really had about dating-- aside from disdaining smokers-- is that former middle school geeks are strongly preferable. Much more interesting. And compassionate. Thanks again!

alg's dad said...

This is a beautiful post! I also didn't realize how unhappy you were at that age, though I knew you weren't happy about switching schools at the beginning of 3rd grade.

I was quite socially inept as a kid, not understanding how other kids (or teachers) would feel about things I said or did. The only time this made me very unhappy, that I can remember, was in 7th grade, when another boy, whom I had played a rather mean practical joke on, held a grudge about it and starting punching me regularly. (Eventually we became friends again.)

I was unusually unathletic, even by the standards of the other nerds that I hung out with, and sometimes was teased about it. On one occasion, also in 7th grade, when I was trying to get a basketball into the basket, the other boys in the class started chanting in unison, "We want a miracle!" It was a little embarrassing, but I don't think it was traumatic, since they were my friends and we always teased each other.

It helped that I was also unusually smart even by the standards of the other nerds, and being smart was valued by the nerds, which somewhat balanced being unathletic. By high school, when I was one of the top scorers on the Math Team, it far more than made up for being unathletic, at least among the people whose opinion I cared about, though I think I was still somewhat socially inept.

Also, as a boy, I didn't have any of the clothing issues that you described. We all wore sports shirts (I favored paisley shirts when I was in junior high, and was disappointed when they went out of fashion around 1965 and you couldn't find them in the stores) and casual pants, though in junior high in New York, before we moved, the boys had to wear dress shirts and ties, which I also liked.

I'm glad to hear that you look forward to reading the Science section of the NY Times, and enjoyed reading Scientific American when we used to subscribe to it, in the days before it went low brow. I didn't think any of our kids was very interested in science.

alg's dad said...

And that's really cool that Rabbi Twersky commented favorably on your essay on feminism and halacha! What was the occasion, and how did you hear about it?

StepIma said...

nerds rock!

though you do realize that having your parents as the main commenters on your post sets your nerd-quotient off the charts ;)

(bolts for the exit...)

ALG said...

Hey, now only HALF of the comments on this post are from my parents. :)

Imma said...

Paul Graham wrote:
"The popular kids learned to be popular, and to want to be popular, the same way the nerds learned to be smart, and to want to be smart: from their parents. While the nerds were being trained to get the right answers, the popular kids were being trained to please."
I think he's right.

alg's dad said...

I agree with what Imma said, but would add a caveat. If the smart kids were trained to be smart, and to want to be smart, rather than popular, by their parents, then the initiative for that type of training came entirely from the kids, not from the choice of the parents. Otherwise, it wouldn't be consistent with a statistic I read in Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate," which says that the variance in personality traits (I assume nerdiness and popularity are considered personality traits) among healthy kids in a given community is hardly due at all to the particular family that the kids are raised in. It is about 50% due to who the kids' biological parents are (i.e. their genes), and the other 50% seems to be chance.

Sorry to throw the percentage of comments by your parents back above 50% again.

Imma said...

All these 50 percents--Bringing up kid is a crapshoot. My mother, your grandmother, likes to say she's happy she has plain, normal kids. I think we did give her relaively few worries.