When I was in school they hadn’t even invented “geek” yet, those who fitted the bill (and I did) were referred to as “nerds” (and I was). And it was most definitely an insult. I was the studious type who followed rules, used manners and didn’t swear so the best I could hope for was when Michelle Rippingale said of me, “Debra’s kind of a nerd but she’s okay.”
Michelle followed up this initial comment with the affirmation, “Besides, it’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch.” These words transfixed me because the idea of being mysterious far surpassed the reality of the fact that I was, indeed, up to nothing at all. It was the edgy kids, like Michelle, who were “cool.” A nerd could never hope for that kind of acceptance, it only happened in movies like Grease and Can’t Buy Me Love. Films that I devoured, as any nerd would, savouring for 90 minutes the fictional world where the whole high school ecosystem could be unraveled and somebody like me could get the guy and be gorgeous and/or sickeningly popular by the end of it.
Welcome, the internet, new information technology, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and the social structure of being a teenager doesn’t seem quite so hierarchical anymore. Of course, this perspective could be due to the dulling effect of viewing the system from the outside but the structure seems less rigid and the lower castes of “nerd” and “geek” have been somewhat elevated to “IT nerd” and “computer geek” where their sought-after knowledge and skills imbues them with an importance and acceptance that nerds of my time could never have hoped for. But it’s not limited to IT either, this new perspective on nerds has established itself in mainstream television too. Take, for example, Matthew Gray Gubler’s character of Dr Spencer Reid in Criminal Minds or Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory. In my nerdy days, all we had was the annoyance of Steve Urkel who was designed to make us all cringe. The interesting difference between the nerdy heroes of the likes of Grease and Can’t Buy Me Love and the newer television manifestations, is that these modern-day nerds are also cool in their own right without having to change or pretend to be anything else.
When I went away to university, I broke away from the labels that had been assigned to me in high school. I shook off the dowdy cloak of nerd-dom and put on the cheesecloth and op-shop fashion of the broke environmental studies student. The luxury of going to university where I knew nobody and nobody knew me was that I could re-invent myself to my heart’s content. I was careful about it too—I tried to be honest with myself and others without being pigeonholed into a stereotype I wasn’t comfortable with. I was still pigeonholed, of course, but at least it was into a pigeonhole of (vaguely) my own choosing.
The luxury of age is that these days I don’t feel tied to or hampered by the labels, past or present, no matter how bad they may have seemed in my youth. I’m quite happy to be a nerd or a geek—although nobody could really accuse me of being an IT nerd, I did write the first draft of this post by hand, with a fountain pen. How old-school nerd is that?