catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 23 :: 2008.12.19 — 2009.01.02


The freedom, the pain and the just desserts of nerdiness

Every so often, I seem to end up having a discussion about nerdiness.  The conversation usually goes like this:

Fellow Adult Nerd (FAN): So you were teased in middle school, too, right?

Me:  Yup.  Shoved in the hallway, called names, and once they took books out of my backpack and ripped them up. 

FAN:  Yeah, me, too.  Did they mess with your clothes in the locker room?

Me:  Yup.  Sprayed deodorant all over them.

FAN:  Me too.  Swirlees?

Me:  Mostly I avoided them.  Bus?

FAN:  Oh yeah-the worst was when they smeared my peanut butter sandwich on my pants.

Me:  It got so bad that my nerd friend and I decided to walk home one day-mile and a half.  It was great.  We never rode the bus again.

Non-Nerd Bystander (NNB):  You guys are pathetic.  Whining about a little teasing.  Grow up already.  Besides, you probably deserved it.

Me:  Huh?

FAN:  Huh?

NNB:  Teasing doesn’t just happen you know.  Probably part of it was your fault-or your parents.  Like maybe you had a dorky name.

Me:  My name is Bill.  It’s not like I was named Irving or Wentworth or something.

NNB:  Well, maybe you were socially awkward.

FAN:  Who isn’t in middle school?  For that we deserved to live in fear every day we had to go to school?

NNB:  Now you’re just being dramatic.

We’re not, actually.  It really was pretty bad.  But for the moment, I would like to consider the debate about that kids who are teased (or bullied) somehow deserving it.  The weird thing is, I actually believe both sides of this discussion.


Side 1:  Nerds don’t deserve to be treated as outsiders, nobody does.

My favorite line in Hamlet occurs when Hamlet (whose life is pretty miserable-he lost his dad, his mom married a jerk, his friends are spying for his enemies, his girlfriend won’t talk to him, etc.) welcomes a troupe of actors to the kingdom.  Hamlet is excited to finally see some culture that will take his mind off his misery.  He instructs Polonius to make sure the actors have a good place to stay.  Polonius replies that he will treat them “according to their dessert” (meaning he will treat them as people of their station deserve to be treated.)  Hamlet explodes back at him:

Odd’s bodkins, Man!  Much better!  Treat every man according to his dessert and who shall ’scape whipping!

It is a very Christian line.  Hamlet is saying that it isn’t about what you have done, or what you deserve, but it is about grace.  Don’t be stingy with your respect toward other-give them more than they deserve. 

If he’s right, then the notion that a middle school kid can do something to deserve to be picked on is patently wrong, whether the alleged reason for the picking is a goofy name, a hair lip, a cleft palate, a large nose, a small nose, birthmarks, chubbiness, skinniness, a strange accent, skin color, clothing that is not popular, religious belief, lack of macho-ness, different body odor, cultural differences, an interest in the arts, a disinterest in sports, liking the wrong music, liking the wrong sports team, not liking any sports team, and so on.  The point here is that either we treat all people as they deserve to be treated-in which case we all deserve to be picked on-or we cut everyone a break and abuse no one.  It makes no sense to try to distinguish between people who are different in some way and those who aren’t, because everyone has some difference somewhere.  So everybody gets abuse or everyone gets a free pass.  The latter option would seem to make for a more civil society.  So from this perspective, our friend the non-nerd bystander ought to stop defending the bullies and shut his mouth.


Side 2:  Nerds are different, and do deserve to be treated as outsiders.

The fact is, though, nerds are different.  They are outsiders.  This is part of being a nerd.  For me, it began with entering my middle school class from another school system.  Then, when I got pushed off to the side away from the popular people, I found myself a friend or two who had also been pushed aside.  What we found out was that being sidelined brought with it a certain amount of freedom.  We no longer had to worry about what we wore or how we acted.  We no longer had to try out for sports teams we weren’t interested in.  We no longer had to be afraid that someone would see us reading or not cheering during pep rallies or whatever.  We no longer had to be cool.

And so yes, there is some truth to the non-nerd bystander’s point about nostalgic whining.  Middle school was hard, but being sidelined helped me find some true friends.  And the freedom it gave me let me escape a lot of society’s more ridiculous expectations-that being male means being tough and stupid, for example.  That being Christian means being nice and wealthy and interacting only with people who are just like me.  That the point of life is to acquire things and status.  That the ideal wife is someone who is as subservient and anorexic as she is flighty and domestic.  That the father works and the wife raises the kids.

Being picked on pushed me to start thinking for myself.  That led to college, grad school, and a fulfilling life.  It allowed me to learn to enjoy biking and sand sculpture and snowshoeing-all physical activities that won’t earn any cool points.  It led me to meet and marry a gorgeous woman who is smarter than I am and with whom I can make decisions not based not on convention or tradition, but on our best judgment of what is right.  It led me to choose to stay home for part of the week when both our children were young, so I could be a part of their lives.  It led my wife and me to live in a house with her sister, brother-in law and their kids, so we could be part of a larger family.  It led me to a life of reading and music and community.

I have two amazing children.  In two years my oldest daughter will be in middle school.  Do I wish that she would be picked on?  Shoved in the hallway?  Shunned as many unpopular middle school girls are?  Openly mocked and unfairly derided?  Do I hope her teachers look the other way, recognizing that adversity is good for the soul?

Of course not.  My daughter and every other middle-schooler deserve to be treated better than they deserve.  I would be happy if her teachers kept their eyes open, watched out for injustice and called it out when they spotted it.

But at the same time, I also hope that she somehow finds the freedom to escape stereotyped societal roles.  I hope she finds good friends who care more about who she is than what she looks like or wears.  I hope she finds a spouse who wants her to be smart and looks forward to discussing and learning with her.  I hope she can carry her books without fear.  I hope she becomes a person whose belief follows the scriptures thoughtfully and not the materialistic social club that religion often is in twenty-first century North America. 

And if the only way she can find that freedom is by going through the daily deep emotional pain of middle school-well, then I have some thinking to do.  Because the pain cannot be overstated, but neither can the freedom. 

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