Thursday, March 12, 2009

Learning I'm not a nerd

Before today, I thought warmly of nerds and proudly called myself one. But the expert on the subject said otherwise when he answered a question by declaring, "The person who gets straight As and is the captain of the swim team is not a nerd."
I learned this at a talk tonight by Benjamin Nugent who wrote a book entitled, The American Nerd: A History of My People. He started by partially reading from the book and partially speaking about his research into the nerdy stereotypes (although the term nerd wasn't used back then) first portrayed in British novels; Pride and Prejudice was one example. He then treated us to a funny glance into the fun teenage boys have with PVC swords on a soccer field, and a view into the world of aging fantasy and sci fi role players who meet in person to play but there is no influx of new blood because young gamers play online.
His definitions and examples of "what is a nerd" came close to mine. But I was focusing on the positives: the smarts, the technologically savvy, the focus and determination to study something closely and know a lot about it. Sure there is an interpersonal aspect -- a nerd is an introvert. No big deal. But I was completely missing the social stigma. Ben said to call someone a nerd is to put them down. It's calling them a misfit, an outcast, a loser. And that is not a good thing to hear, especially as a kid. We each have our own definitions and perceptions of what things are... We can both be right about what a nerd is?
But then after the lecture I spoke with a good friend who was a dungeon master as a teenager, who did not attend the lecture but almost immediately keyed into the insult factor. That those who called others nerds were trying to gain power, acheive social dominance, in the only way they can by physically or verbally insulting the smart kid, the shy kid, the fantasy gamer. Even though you might realize they are just jealous because you're smart, it still didn't feel good to be called a nerd, to be further ostracized.
Me and my impressions of nerds? I had the rose colored glasses on, again. Ben Nugent's thoughtful answers to the many questions from the inquisitive audience was a stimulating way to be reminded of my silly, rosy outlook.
For you? I recommend the book. Aside from the interesting topic, he's a nice guy who had dinner with us afterward.

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