Friends who know me from my most recent incarnation (I typed incarceration by mistake but quickly realized my mistake)—the last fifteen years of my life when I can safely call myself an adult—would probably characterize me as outgoing and outspoken. I blurt what’s on my mind; I tell strangers not to litter, my husband to pay attention to my important musings, and my students to shape up or ship out.
As a girl, however, I was shy, scared of the Italian girls in my neighborhood with their bouffant hairdos and smoldering cigarettes. Bad influences, my grandmother called them. I was fearful of some of the Lithuanian girls as well, the older ones who wore lipstick and knew the meaning of words like douchebag.
I imagine a postcard from my early grade school days—me with my hair in braids and my teeth begging for braces, pasting insect stamps into my Young Adventurer’s Stamp Collector’s Book. In the background one can detect the faint outlines of a chess set. Next to the chess set, in bold relief, stands a pile of books including Tell My Why (Sample question: How big is the universe?), Profiles in Courage, and an unabridged Lithuanian-English dictionary.
Greetings from Nerdville, the postcard says.
(Husband intrusion: “Do you know that nerd can also be spelled nurd?” But nerdy can only be spelled nerdy, not nurdy.”)
My nerdiness followed me into high school—I memorized the poetry of Longfellow for fun, stayed up nights reading Tolkien, and almost flunked out of gym—though it was leavened somewhat by participation in drama productions (high school drama productions, not my own—those came later) and occasional use of various illegal substances.
As I’m writing this I’m wondering what the difference is between nerd and geek. Are they interchangeable? I vaguely remember hearing that geek is more positive than nerd.
When I first met my husband, we asked each other about our ethnic backgrounds.
“I’m half Greek,” Marty told me. What I heard, though, was “I’m half geek.”
“The other half of you must be jock,” I nodded wisely.
I sometimes think if I’d been born twenty years later I wouldn’t have had such a difficult time in school. These days nerdiness is accepted, if not celebrated (though I suspect that young nerds still have a hard time of it, especially if most of their classmates are non-nerds.) The Big Bang Theory is one of the most popular sitcoms on television. Top celebrity nerds, according to popular entertainment blogs, include such attractive people as Natalie Portman, James Franco, Vigo Mortensen, and the Gyllenhaals. Students come to class wearing t-shirts with slogans like “Ich bin ein nerd,” “Chaucer is my homeboy,” and “Cogito ergo sum.” (There should be a comma after the cogito: Cogito, ergo sum. Many people labor under the false assumption that there are no commas in Latin, but this is true only of medieval Latin. Fun fact: the comma as we know it was adapted from the virgule–a real word because it’s good in Scrabble—a little diagonal slash first used in the middle ages. I learned this from the Wikipedia site for comma, which includes a little warning: “Not to be confused with coma.” A lot of my students do confuse comma with coma. A few years ago a student wrote the following: “I was in a comma out of which I painfully emerged.” I was very tempted to respond, “I was once in a question mark and, let me tell you, that was no fun.”)
I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this or how it relates to Scrabble, except that the game attracts a lot of nerdy people. Tournament Scrabble players are probably all nerds by definition, though some are nerdier than others. Quite a few are accomplished, attractive, sophisticated nerds. Melissa Routzahn, for example, is a curvaceous blue-eyed blonde who also happens to be an expert on cheese. Lisa Brown has shining hair down to her butt and a wonderful laugh and knows about a thousand languages. There are many more examples. Of course, there are also just plain ol’ weird nerds, mostly guys who won’t look you in the eye and wear high-water pants and short-sleeved shirts with pocket protectors, but I’ll save that topic for another time.