Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Slashdot posted this article yesterday, titled "Why Nerds are Unpopular." As a one-time nerd and full-time geek, stories like this strike close to home. The author makes a number of valid points about the plight of the smart kid in today's American school system. He says that the years between 11 and 17 are the worst for the smart students, with 11-14 being the worst of the worst. I can relate to that: Seventh grade was the worst year for me in school. Other kids picked on me for years, starting well before 11, but in seventh grade, the torment reached its peak. I was chubby, unathletic, played a weird musical instrument (the viola), had geeky glasses with large plastic frames, my clothes were out of fashion, and I was among the smartest kids in the school. So I was teased mercilessly all year. I don't have any fond memories of that year, except maybe for my bar mitzvah. He argues that smart kids, given the option of being popular but losing intellect in the bargain, would choose to remain smart but unpopular. That's true too. I realized early on in school that I was smarter than most of those around me, and I wouldn't have dumbed myself down for any reason, not even to alleviate the teasing. He argues for a long stretch that American schools are micro-societies along the lines of Lord of the Flies or adult prisons, where the teachers are wardens and the students are inmates. Many schools are suburban and sterile, so the students have to create their own society and order so that they can have a frame of reference. When you get out of high school and into the real world, you have a society to belong to, and you finally recognize that the social order of your school years was an illusion, an artificial construct created for the survival of the group. That sounds about right to me: how else can anyone explain the cliques of students that cannot be transcended under any circumstances?

But I disagree with some of the details. The author argues that the nerds want to be popular, but instead of devoting time to figuring out how to be popular (as if it's a game or a school assignment), they're too busy doing their schoolwork or working on hobbies to try to be popular. I don't think that's true. First of all, I don't think I ever wanted to be popular. I would have settled for any outcome of events whereby I wasn't tormented as badly as I was at the time. For me, it wasn't about working too hard on other things to worry about becoming more popular. No matter what I would have done at that age, I would have been teased and ostracized. The other students had prejudged me a nerd, and there was nothing I could do about it. Eventually, I outgrew my awkwardness, as did many of the students around me. By the time I was a junior in high school, I had learned how to deal with the teasing (don't take it personally, something my parents had told me for years, but I hadn't believed until then) and I found some activities that broadened my circle of friends. The point is that it was a stage in my life that I don't think could have been avoided by my working harder at being popular.

He also brings up suicide, and suggests that it's the result of keeping students in prison-like schools and treating teenagers as if they don't belong in the adult world any more than they belong in a child's world. I think he's got this one wrong too. I considered suicide a few times growing up, at my most depressed moments. But I knew that it wasn't the solution to any of my problems. It would have been a cry for attention, but it wasn't attention I was lacking. It just wasn't the way out of the hole I was in, and somehow I knew that I just had to give things time and they would eventually improve. And they did, since I'm still here. The sad thing is that in my high school, we had a few suicides and several more failed attempts. But the kids who were trying to kill themselves were the popular ones! How much sense did that make to anyone? How could an attractive cheerleader with lots of friends decide to hang herself in her closet? What drove other students to overdose on pills? Even the popular kids had problems, just like the nerds. There wasn't any real difference among any of us; we were all tormented in one way or another. Some people chose the wrong solution to their problems.

The more I read the article, the more garbage I find. I think the author is trying to make a good point, and for the most part he succeeds, but he rambles too much and brings up too many points that aren't further developed. And he doesn't have any solutions to offer. Kind of like me sometimes. It's an interesting read, but I think that there are child psychologists out there who would be able to offer much better insight into the issues of today's teens.

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