Owning the “nerd” label

While we were visiting Greg’s family, we had a conversation one night about whether kids who play in marching bands are nerds. Greg played the trombone in high school, and his mom was quick to insist that neither Greg nor members of marching bands are nerds. The rest of us pointed out the poor cut of the uniforms, the cumbersome instruments that must be carried, the near impossibility of looking cool while participating in such a venture.

When I was in high school, some members of the competitive academic team encouraged me to join. I refused. I belonged on that team, and the people on that team knew that I belonged, but I still clung to hope that I could reach some higher rung of coolness, a rung that would net me a boyfriend or at least a date to the homecoming dance. Joining that team would have been admitting defeat. Everyone would have known that I was nerd. Never mind that everyone already knew.

My high school class had 16 valedictorians. I was one of them. Many of the boys in that group had girlfriends, but only one of the girls did. Some of those girls had achieved that magical combination of popularity and smarts, and still they didn’t have boyfriends. Something about our brains drove away the boys. Threatened, perhaps?

My parents didn’t think that I was a nerd. Or at least they tried to convince me that I wasn’t. When I reached college, I found throngs of nerds. Suddenly it seemed OK to be smart, to have an interest in botany or foreign films. I knew that these were my people, but back in high school, I hadn’t had any idea that I would someday fit in.

Instead of working to eliminate that term — nerd— which we will never do, I wish that we would embrace it. I have embraced it. Life is incredibly difficult when you try to be something you are not. I wish that I had joined those academic team kids. Maybe they could have taught me some self-acceptance.

I hope that when my kids are older, they will not be obsessed with the popularity contest. I hope that each will be the best physics student or poet or red-faced, sweating tuba player. You bet we are nerds! Isn’t that preferable to detachment and ignorance?