Am I to understand that, largely because of a television situation comedy, it is now cool to be awkward, socially inept, and very smart, all while being considered – dare I use the word – “nerdy?” When did this happen? In my day, we nerds were cast out from all the best tables in the school lunchroom or forced to get bad grades to avoid being picked on because we were smart – that never worked, by the way. It’s just not fair that today’s geeks get a pass! But, it’s about time!
Yes, I was a nerd, of the ultimate type, though I never made much of an effort to show my smarts on my report card; the dreaded “permanent record.” Best part is, I’m still pretty nerdy, if not more so, except now, people think it’s much cooler. Ok, maybe not so much when you’re nearly 50 years old, but still, it’s better than the reverse.
It is highly unlikely, however, that the power struggle of lunchroom hierarchy has changed too much. Although I have learned that there are now “smart kid cliques,” like a “herd of nerd.” These gaggles of bespectacled hackers, techies, science geeks and math whizzes won’t let the cool kids – jocks, cheerleaders, etc. – sit at their tables. Oh my, how the lunch tables have turned! So what, exactly happened to cause this mirror universe effect (there’s a Star Trek reference for anyone who’s paying attention)?
Were our Heisenberg compensators out of calibration? Was there a paradoxical overlap in the delicate fabric of space and time? Perhaps J.J. Abrams decided to re-imagine nerddom in his own image? However interesting these explanations may sound, the popularity shift albeit a smaller one than you might think has more to do with money than anything else, on several levels.
In the 1990s, the nerds of the 80s were rolling in the cash as the tech boom swept across the nation and rapidly spread worldwide. Billions of dollars were going into research and development as the Internet expanded and commerce took notice.
Suddenly, everyone was a hacker or web developer. Countless tech startups swamped Silicon Valley and the rest of the country as everybody with a modem tried to cash in on the boom. In short, the nerds of yesterday are the successful business tycoons of today, at least some of the time.
Next, it would be hard to talk about this subject without at least a hat-tip to the TV nerds of CBS’s hit comedy, “The Big Bang Theory.” The quirky, discomfited antics of Sheldon, Leonard, Raj and Howard have become a sensation. The show seems to be broadcast every hour of the evening, primetime or in syndication. Watching people who seem far more awkward and unsure than ourselves has always been a pastime, but this is somehow even more engaging.
Most of us who have worked in the engineering or technical fields knew or knows someone like each of these guys, but with nowhere near the personality or likability of the four fictional personas. Speaking of real life, I’m fortunate that I don’t carry a grudge for all the harassment I endured growing up.
If anything, it’s been a source of great resolve and I’ve have written many times on the subjects of bullying, mean-spirited teasing and the like. Unfortunately, there are some of my nerd kin out there who just can’t let it go or, if they’re still in school, carry a sharp chip on their shoulders because they aren’t part even of the herd of nerd that as claimed a spot at one of the cool tables.
There is every possibility that the reason someone doesn’t socially advance has as much to do with the person than the environment. A bad attitude goes both ways. No one will be popular if he or she is always pointing out the mistakes of others, belittling someone’s intelligence or carries that chip on the shoulder that keeps others at bay.
I learned to embrace my inner (and outer) geek and like whom I’ve become. In the end, it’s far better to be smart and socially functional, than sit alone in the cafeteria.
Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and contributor to WDTN-TV2’s program, Living Dayton. More at gerydeer.com.