Thursday, February 08, 2007

Coming Out of the Nerd Closet

I have been a nerd since at least age 12, possibly longer, but that’s all I can swear to for certain. I was that annoying kid with the spring-loaded arm who always knew the answer to everything any teacher ever asked, ever thought about asking, or ever heard asked by someone else. I made the other nerds in my honors classes feel ashamed of their inferior brand of nerdliness, except occasionally in Calculus, when I did get out-nerded a few times. It only made me study harder.

I’ve worn glasses since I was 10 years old, and I wish I had had them sooner. Finding out that trees had leaves from a distance, too, instead of being fuzzy green blobs, made the whole world brand new (!) in an especially doofy and nerdly way. And, as the universe knows no humor bounds, I am pretty uncoordinated when it comes to gross motor skills, and I consequently suck at sports. I especially suck at projectile sports, which also has to do with being a glasses-wearer back when kids got one pair, and no matter how broken they got, you wore them and the surgical or electrical tape that was holding them together to school (and church, and shopping, and playing with friends) until the optometrist said you needed new lenses.

I liked learning the way shipwrecked castaways like hot baths, cooked food, cold drinks, and fluffy beds. There was never enough; I could never learn enough about anything; I always had more questions; there was always something new to learn, read about, study up on, do exercises or problems on, and experts in the topic to be contacted and consulted. I had, and still have, a bottomless cup of curiosity, a voracious appetite for learning, reading, studying, collecting information.

I didn’t realize how peculiar this made me in the world at large until I was in about 7th grade. Prior to that, back in the haze of my childhood, I had the luxury of having mostly outstanding teachers. Yes, I had a few duds, and I remember them, but even the duds didn’t make me feel like a weirdo, they just made me dislike them.

Anyway, it wasn’t until I was in junior high school that I realized most other kids were not like me. They were just warming seats and learning the least they had to to keep their parents and their teachers off their backs. They didn’t show up with a sense of excitement and anticipation to school, they showed up to bitch and moan with other like types about how “boring” it all was (like they were going to be rock stars at age 13 if they weren’t forced to be in school or something) and how much of a waste of their time it was.

It happened when I was interrogating a teacher ruthlessly about a book where the class was reading chapter by chapter, and I had, as was my habit, already read the book twice and written pencil answers (as opposed to the all-important PEN answers for handing in!) to all the accompanying questions. She got fed up and said, with force and irritation, “WE’RE NOT THERE YET, and you’re going to have to WAIT for the rest of the class to catch up.” From the far side of the classroom came an anonymous voice, “Yeah, do you have to be such a total dork?” which made the rest of the class laugh.

And, suddenly, I was all alone; and for the first time in my public school life, I knew it, really knew it, and I felt under attack, desolated, shamed, demeaned, and abandoned. I had, by the force of my enthusiasm, vast curiosity, and personal drive, made myself a laughingstock, an outsider. I had been rejected by my society and my treasured authority figures on a deeply personal level. Publicly. I was marooned a thousand miles away from everyone else in that classroom, and they were glad I was gone.

It was very hard not to cry. But I didn’t. I just shut down. I closed my book, I put away my papers quietly, and I did as I had been told to do. I waited for the rest of them to catch up. In the rest of my classes that day, I waited for the rest of them to catch up; silently, in shame and embarrassment, I waited for them to catch up.

I waited for someone else to answer questions in science class, my favorite class, and I kept my hands on my desk and my head down and tried not to cry. When the teacher finally got fed up with waiting for someone to answer her question, she called on me, and I whispered out the answer. I made it as short as possible, so as not to give the other students any ammunition to shoot me with again. That was so out of character that my science teacher asked me if I was OK, I nodded and looked down at my desk again and kept my eyes on my desktop. Before the end of class, she came over and asked me if anything was wrong. I just peeked at her quickly and shook my head. She was not convinced.

I don’t know how many days I stayed silent and withdrawn in school, or how many nights I quietly cried while I did my homework. It had stopped being fun, it had stopped being interesting, and instead of being somewhere I liked to go, school became somewhere I tried to not get insulted and beat up on. And I waited for everyone else to catch up, hour after hour, day after day, over and over and over and over and over. I could have slept until I got called on and still have gotten the right answer. I could have written the test answers with my pen in my mouth and one eye glued shut and still have smoked the rest of the class. Sometimes, it wasn’t worth getting out of bed for, and I didn’t.

The only teachers who worried were my math and science teachers. To all the rest of them, I had stopped being a problem with my questions and my curiosity and my hyper-accelerated performance, and everything was “just fine” as I sat there dying inside, wishing with all my heart that there was somewhere in the world for kids like me – kids who worked hard because they liked it, who learned and studied and found it rewarding and fun and endlessly exciting… Somewhere where being like me was normal.

I didn’t go to school for 2 weeks at one point, and a truant officer showed up at my house. When my mom got home from work, I had to tell her about it because she had to sign a paper. She just looked at me, signed the paper, and asked me what was going on. I told her the kids had made fun of me for being smart. She was speechless, literally speechless. I went up to my room and stared out the window, wishing I were dead, or missing, or living in Algeria, or a frog, or anything other than myself. Mom made dinner.

I knew she’d want to talk to me after dinner, and she did. I knew what her first question would be, and I was right. She asked, “Didn’t the teacher do anything?” I told her that the teacher was the one who started it, and repeated the events to her. I saw the shock waves go through her, I saw the rage go ballistic within her, and for the first time in our mutual history, I was not afraid of her rage because I could tell it was not directed at me. She became very terse and brisk. “Go to bed,” she said, “and get your clothes ready to go back to school tomorrow.”

My mom and I have always had and always will have a difficult history together. The dynamics changed shortly after my twelfth birthday, and, maybe someday I’ll talk about it here. In the year and a half between then and our discussion, we had spent most of our time staying out of each other’s way. But, for once, my mother came through for me.

The next morning, I got dressed, waited for the bus and went to school. I got the usual pointless and inapplicable warnings about having fallen “very far behind” in my first class, looked over the assignment list and realized I could do it in an evening and resigned myself to an endless series of days of waiting for everyone else to catch up.

As I headed to my second class, I saw every teacher I had hustling down the hallway towards the office like there was a fire drill without the bell. That got my attention for a moment. It took a while for a teacher to show up for my second class, and it wound up being a regular teacher who was going between our room and her own room, just to keep order. It was the same way during my third class. Something was up, and even my classmates were wondering aloud what it might be. I didn’t care that much. I figured there was going to be a teacher strike or something political was happening. Then it was lunchtime, and I got to see some of my friends, who had been worried about me, and I cheered up a little.

Fourth class was Home Ec. Our regular teacher was there, and she had an announcement. She fixed the worst slackers in the class in the eye and said, “I want each and every one of you to know that there will be no more picking on smart kids. There is nothing wrong with being smart, there is nothing wrong with asking questions, there is nothing wrong with working ahead, and the first one of you who pulls that kind of a stunt in MY class room is going to go right past suspension and be expelled. Is that clear?”

My head shot up, and my mouth fell open. I looked at my Home Ec. teacher in astonishment, and while the other students were complaining and sneaking glances at me, she and I made definite eye contact. I quirked an eyebrow, and she gave a tiny nod and an even tinier quick smile. Then she brought the class to order and we did whatever we were supposed to be doing. I don’t remember; I was in shock. I thanked her as I left class at the end of the period. She patted me on the shoulder and said, “don’t worry anymore.”

For each of my remaining classes, every teacher made the same or a similar announcement. Some of them were pretty fired up and emotional themselves, some were clearly resentful at having been called on the carpet, and some of them were mad as hell on my behalf, and, presumably on behalf of all the other kids who were living in silent desperation as well. Some of them openly looked at me and told me to tell them if I had so much as a single complaint about being picked on; that they weren’t going to stand for bullying for a minute.

My science teacher just about boiled the paint right off the walls, she was so mad. She really let loose at the bullies and the slackers and told them they needed to emulate smart kids, not bully them, that they were going to be raking leaves and washing the cars of the smart kids if they didn’t get their heads in gear and get in the game, and so on. It was a rant of quite magnificent scope and duration, at the end of which she said to me, “don’t ever stop asking questions, don’t ever stop wanting to know more, don’t let anyone make you ashamed of being smart ever again!” I burst into grateful tears, and so did a tiny little, wispy blond girl with coke-bottle glasses, buckteeth and braces who sat two seats behind me. She and I looked at each other and smiled through our tears. We both said, very loudly, “Thank you!” (We eventually became best friends.)

It continued the next day with the first three teachers, too. One of them was the teacher who had told me I’d have to “wait”, and she was red-eyed and pissed off at me, but she made the same announcement. She quit teaching at my school at the end of that year.

By the end of the week, I wasn’t the only nerd feeling safe and protected and appreciated in the school. There were quite a few of us meeting, talking, and getting to know each other in the lunch room, in the front seats of classrooms, in the library, dragging our enormous loads of books from class to class. Instead of drooping along in the hallways, trying our best to be invisible, we took over the main pathways and acted like we finally belonged.

My mother hadn’t said a thing until Friday night after dinner. She asked me how things were going at school. I said, with a very big smile, that they were very different now, and I told her what had happened. She looked at me, nodded, and said, “good.” I thanked her.

I’d like to tell you that my junior high school became a renowned nerd haven, but it didn’t. It did become a lot more conducive to academic competitiveness and good-natured, high-speed learning, which is more than most schools do. My nerd friends and I were excited by the change, happy to feel safe, and able to enjoy being ourselves again. It was a good thing.

There is more to my nerd tale, but this seems like enough for today.


Anonymous said...

It started for me in the first grade and there was nothing anyone could have done about it because it was endemic. I'm so glad your mother got such results. It speaks to not only her courage and ability but also the principal and teachers. Very interesting read, Joan. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

That was beautiful. I am crying.

Brigitte said...

You made me cry too. I think you were strong even then, I just gave up completely by 4th grade and never did come back. At my school, even if the teachers had stood up for the nerds (instead of berating their smartness, like yours did and which I got a few times), the retribution from the other kids would have just become even worse, if possible. I'm glad you got a few years of feeling safe!