I know I was.
From high school on, and for years afterwards, I was odd, bookish, ill-at-ease and clumsy. And I had this sometimes-embarrassingly-loud laugh — meant to be a quiet, easy chuckle, it sometimes seemed to get away from me, ballooning shrilly outward to fill an entire room, turning heads and provoking “looks.”
Ouch. I still wince to think of it.
Interestingly enough, I was not a nerd in elementary school or junior high.
And I think I’ve figured out something of why this was so.
It wasn’t because I changed, I don’t think. It was because, in those younger years, all us kids were essentially the same. We were different in many ways, sure, but we were all together in our essential relationship with adults. We shared this common perspective: adults were aliens.
They were Friendly Aliens, mostly, but they were aliens. And we were all together in being just-kids under their collective alien thumbs.
But then in late middle school or early high school, some of the kids started becoming aliens too.
If you were clumsy as a kid, all the other kids just accepted it; it was no big deal. And so what? Everybody was clumsy, compared to adults.
If you spoke with a stammer, again, no big deal. So what? Everybody stammered and shuffled their feet, figuratively, compared to adults.
If you were totally uncertain about what you wanted to do with your life, or how to act with girls (or guys), or how loud a laugh should be, so what? Everybody was like that, compared to adults.
You were still Okay.
But then …
Then … this boy, and that girl, and this kid next door, and those others on the bus, one by one, began to turn into aliens.
Yes, it was physical in part. They blossomed into muscles and height and coordination, or hips and breasts and magnetic beauty, while we stayed our unformed nebbishly selves.
But it was also mental. These, our former classmates, suddenly had solid OPINIONS, they had definite VIEWPOINTS, they had this ironclad unwavering CERTAINTY about everything.
And we were suddenly unsolid, indefinite, uncertain. About our classmates, about ourselves, about life itself.
We were gawky and nervous, not worthless but worth less than our suddenly adult classmates.
We were suddenly, by comparison, nerds.
I used to describe what happened when people became adults as “crystallization.” As an unformed youngster, you might grow up to be anything, but when you Crystallized, you were what you were going to be for the rest of your life. You hardened into your final form and, barring some catastrophic event, you were THAT way forever.
Unless you were one of those extreme early bloomers yourself, you must remember how you felt when other kids suddenly and certainly knew what they were going to be when they grew up. You must have thought, “How do they know? How can he be so sure he wants to be an auto mechanic? How can she be so sure she wants to be a dentist?”
I mean, sure, we all had those things we wanted to be. But we also weren’t bothered when “what I want to be when I grow up” changed from time to time. This week, we wanted to be race car drivers with all our hearts. Next week it was astronauts. After that, long haul truckers, followed by veterinarians, actors and actresses, stand-up comics, heart surgeons, fighter pilots, and on and on.
But when you Crystallized, that was it. You knew, and everybody knew you knew, what you wanted to be. And what you wanted to do. And what you thought about everything.
From an unformed messy child, you were suddenly a clear, hard crystal of an adult.
I remember a character in a book, a bright youngster, saying “I wonder what sort of Funny I’ll have when I grow up?” She’d seen that adults had characteristic mannerisms, gestures, tics and such, funny idiosyncrasies — Funnies — and she assumed they somehow just got inserted into you at random while you were growing up, and you had them ever after.
This was my first hint that not everything that you became as an adult might be good. Considering the fact that some people Crystallized into drunks and street bums (Ease up, okay? — that was what we called them back then.), adulthood could even be really sucky.
But that didn’t make nerdhood any better. It was scary to think you might go direct from Nerd to Bum, from Nerdette to Drunk, with no intervening poise or peace or happiness.
Well, for most of us, none of that worrisome stuff happened. We all lived our lives, struggling through the nerd years, and came out okay. We got our own cars and licenses, college degrees (many of us) and jobs and careers, we became voters and owners of mortgaged houses, and even, most of us, parents of children to whom we could be the Friendly Aliens.
Looking back on it, though, I’m glad I was a nerd. I’m glad I DIDN’T crystallize in high school. I’m glad for all the years of uncertainty, and anguish, and living unformed and unsolid.
And I’ll tell you why.
Do you know how children’s bones grow? Without going into the whole medical/technical explanation (for which I’m eminently unqualified), there are these little cartilaginous plate thingies on the ends of your bones, and they lay down progressive thicknesses of bone on both ends of, say, your femur, over all the years you’re growing. Eventually they turn fully into bone themselves and growth stops. And however long your femur got, that’s it. However long your fingers got, that’s it. However tall you got, that’s it.
If this hardening happened when you were 3 feet tall, you became, for the rest of your life, a midget or a dwarf, and that was it. If it happened when you were 4’10″, you became “short” or “petite,” and that was it.
On the other hand, if it didn’t happen right away, if you kept on growing and growing, you got to be 5’ 6″ or 5’9″ or 5’11″ or 6’2″ and on and on, before you stopped. And you got to be “average” or “tall” or “how’s the weather up there?”
Can you imagine that the same kind of maturing process happens to minds?
That some minds just crystallize at the age of 15, and stop growing after that? That some crystallize at the age of 24, and stop growing after that? And that some crystallize at the age of 35, and that’s where they stop growing?
And since we aren’t talking about solidifying bones, maybe … just maybe … there are some that keep on growing for a long, long time. Maybe even for a lifetime.
How do you suppose that works out in real terms?
The Embarrassing ‘Me’
I have some tape recordings I made when I was in my 20s, of things that I thought about day to day. And I tell you, I’m embarrassed to listen to them. I seem so young, so unsophisticated, so … dopey. My opinions were so shallow, my feelings so superficial and sloppy, and my thinking processes so childish and simple, I’m mortified today that I was that person.
If I had crystallized then, I would have been so much less than I eventually became.
And therein lies the secret power of nerdhood. We nerds kept growing. We kept learning.
Our unformed opinions let us absorb more and more and more operational data about the world, and the point at which we solidified into our adult selves was held off so long that we were forced to be open-minded and inquisitive for longer.
I know this isn’t true for everybody. Probably all of us know nerds who grew up to be … nerds. Gawky, unformed messes, even as adults.
But for some of us, maybe for a lot of us … we didn’t just grow Up, we grew Out. We grew Long. We grew Broad. We grew Deep.
Think about it: Who ended up with more formal education, the teen beauty queens and jockstars, or the nerds? Who ended up traveling and exploring and experimenting? Who ended up with the most open minds, that willingness to adventure off into distant realms of new ideas and new viewpoints?
Who turned into their parents, and nothing more than their parents, and who, by contrast, grew up to become completely new people?
I know people who vote as their parents voted. I know people who took on the same religion as their parents. I know people who live in the same towns their parents did, who never traveled farther than a couple of hundred miles from where they were born, just because … well, just because.
And there’s nothing innately wrong with that, I guess.
What IS wrong, perhaps, is if you do it without thinking about it.
What’s wrong is if you do it automatically.
What’s wrong is if you, merely because you had no better ideas in mind, never took the opportunity to become what you could be, rather than what someone else became.
Because what if THEY were equally brainless about what they became? What if THEY modeled their entire lives after what their parents did and said and thought?
I’ll bet there are people out there who are the trailer trash descendants of 6,000-year-distant trailer trash ancestors (again, don’t bust my chops; some of ‘em are MY people). They live next to the railroad tracks and have rusted heaps in the yard because their 50-times-great grandfathers in ancient Eqypt lived next to the road and had broken chariots up on blocks in the yard.
Others, by contrast, spent a year in Tibet. Hitchhiked across Europe. Found strange and interesting new ideas in books. Joined the Civil Air Patrol as nerdy teenagers and went on to fly commercial airliners as confident, mature, accomplished adults.
As for me, I took a LOOOooooong time to grow up.
Yet I became able, much to my surprise and pleasure, to write such things as what you’re reading right now. And, better yet, to create and understand the ideas behind it. I became able to have so many interesting new thoughts during my lifetime. And even more to come.
You know what I’d like to tell all the young nerds in the world?
Never be ashamed of being a nerd. You’ll go farther, and you’ll see more, and better yet, you’ll understand more, than a lot of these other people.
It’s people like you who grow up to be open-minded thinkers, conscientious voters, better-than-average citizens, and fun, interesting Friendly Aliens for every next generation of nerdy kids.
It’s people like you who surf the breaking waves of every new idea.
People like you who sharpen the cutting edge of technology and science.
People like you who meet Prometheus out on the road, and bring home Fire.