Thursday, January 7, 2010

Eight months and fourteen days: the nature of geekdom

A little over thirty years ago, I stood in front of a mirror. There, staring back at me, was a short 12-year-old with unruly black hair, wearing enormous tortoise shell glasses. This was not the face of a big man on campus; it was the face of the kid you see shoved up against a wall in the hallway, hanging out in the math room during lunch. It was a kid who, up until that moment, had built his entire reputation around being smart.

On that day, the ninth-grade me decided to take action. No more would I be the annoying kid with his hand raised, ready to answer any question and then bask in the glow of teacher approval. I already knew what that got me; it got me Tom Finn calling me "Einstein" in front of Mr. Peralta's class.

What it didn't get me was invitations to parties, access to popular people like Rocky Lall and Jolena Betts, much of anything beyond a feeling that whatever strategy I was trying wasn't working.

So I changed. I got my hair cut and bought contact lenses. A week later, Mr. Zimmerman, the English teacher, commented that I had "really changed (my) look." I liked that.

I made sure to leverage whatever friendships I already had. Anyone who had a connection to the in-crowd was treated like a king. Everyone else I sort of shrugged off. I mean, you can't change who you really are -- in my case, a guy destined to spend and entire high school career of Saturdays playing poker and drinking root beer -- but there are plenty of things a manipulative, cynical teenager can do to make his path a little easier, and frankly, a little more exciting besides.

By mid-term, I was a regular at parties, though while there, I generally hung out on the perimeter, only occasionally darting into the nucleus to say something strange, receive odd looks and then retreat again into the darkness. At one party, I sat on a fence with Roger A. Hunt, who just spent New Year's weekend here, thirty years later, watching everyone else have a good time.

My grades slipped, but I didn't care. No one did. They stayed high enough, and a test I'd taken in fifth grade kept me in honors classes, where I could let my guard down. I ran for student government, making sure to only go after offices I knew I could win.

You'd be hard-pressed to find someone today who'd say I did the right thing in 1979. It'd be easier to find someone who'd shake their head and say, "Ahh, I get it now." All of that energy put towards something that was impossible. For the Rocky Lalls of the world, it was (at the time) effortless.

Maybe I should have put my efforts to something more realistic?

Which brings me to my son, the Bar Mitzvah boy in eight months and 14 days. He is not the most popular boy at school, and he doesn't seem to care. Which leaves me simultaneously impressed and terrified. As I've proven, no way do I stay with the status quo if I'm at the nerd table.

He's a good-looking kid. I say that with a bit of parental bias and a lot of reinforcement from others. Back when we had some say in the matter, we dressed him in the latest mass-produced fashions -- to be stylish, but not stand out as weird. You know.

Seventh grade is a strange time, especially, we're learning, when you've been at the same (some would say, sheltered) school since kindergarten. Everyone's growing up at different paces. Unfortunately for my child, one phase for others, including some of his friends, seems to be utter embarassment at anything that would bring unwanted attention. Like running around in your suit before a Bar Mitzvah shooting off a giant Nerf gun and claiming to be James Bond. Or playing with third-graders because they're the only ones who are still into Yu-Gi-Oh.

After all, I had sports at least.

Each week, he goes off to one of these Bar Mitzvahs. Each week, we come to pick him up. Each week we find him on the dance floor, alone, grooving heavily without a second's thought toward what the popular kids are doing. And trust me, we know who the popular kids are. They're the ones who are already dating.

And at school, he seems to have defaulted into hanging out with the kids nobody else would claim. I think he's the king of this motley group, at least. He complains about these other kids all the time, but something inside him -- or not inside him -- prevents him from taking on the challenge of breaking into another social caste.

It's been eight years in school with these same kids. Back in kindergarten, everyone hung out with everyone. You could have playdates with girls and never bat an eyelash. Things change.

Now before you all start hounding me and telling me that I should be proud of my Jawa for refusing to tow the company line, understand how much effort and focus I put into doing just that when I was his age. I get it, really. The geek shall inherit the earth. My way obviously didn't work.

That's not going to make me feel any less of his pain -- even if he doesn't -- when he's on the outside looking in. Even when he's not bothering to look in.

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