Monday, November 20, 2006

A Geek By Any Other Name...

Geek, nerd, dweeb, dork, loser--When I was in school, all these words were synonyms for the kid nobody wanted to be. Probably anyone who ever went to an American school in the second half of the twentieth century knows what social disapproval fell on the heads of those poor unfortunate souls who, for various reasons, bore the shameful burden of these unflattering appellations. Uncool kids were nerds. Unpopular kids were losers. In school you either used these names to taunt others, or you were yourself the object of such taunting, or both. The two positions were not mutually exclusive. I knew many a dork in my day who was perfectly happy to make himself feel better about his less-than-stellar place in the cruel and competitive world of the public school pecking order by pointing out that a fellow dweeb's position was worse.

There were a lot of things that could garner you the uncoveted title of geek. Being too smart was, of course, one of the clearest warning signs of potential geekdom. It was the rare kid who had looks and social grace in sufficient quantities to overcome the serious social obstacle of conspicuous intelligence. General unattractiveness, social awkwardness, unfashionable clothing, glasses, poverty, reading on the bus (especially science fiction and history), technical know-how--these could all provide the social kiss of death. Who among us does not remember the kid in the plaid high-water pants who was always pushing up his too big hand-me-down glasses, while heading off to the AV room to fetch the film-strip projector because the teacher knew he could be trusted to bring it back promptly, and get it working on arrival?

Perhaps you were one of those kids. I know I was. I was unattractive, socially inept, unfashionably dressed (the grade school years), had a bad haircut (this pretty much lasted throughout childhood), got really good grades, got put in "smart" classes, loved to read (odd things like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I discovered when I was twelve and read till it fell apart), and had a penchant for correcting people. In what's probably the worst of all possible childhood offenses, I was also perennially an object of the approval of teachers. I was the kid they let out of class early to be cross-walk monitor. I was the kid who got to skip the test because the teacher told the class I was the only one who passed the last one. I was the kid who delivered notes to the principal, and never got sent there for any other reason. Oh the tragedy of it all. I cannot stress enough what a social handicap it is to have teachers like you in your formative years. I was also always getting teased for using big words--words I never knew were big or out of the ordinary. Everyone used them at home, and their meaning suited the occasion, so I used them without thinking. Social suicide.

Geek wasn't a big word, but it was a bad word. That was thirty years ago, however. What about now? Well, dweeb, dork, and loser (or their functional equivalents) are probably still a handicap for the underage set, but geek has taken on some new nuances of meaning over the years. (Words do change their meaning over time. How many of us toss around the word "gay" to say that we're carefree these days?) Now geek has morphed to include the synonym "techie," which didn't do much for the reputation of a kid when techie meant that you ran the projector, but is revolutionized when you throw it into today's high-tech context. Science Fiction isn't so fictional anymore, and the people who saw it coming, or better yet, are making it happen, have a new and important place in the world. "Geek" has come to earn a measure of respect as computers have become central to our daily lives. The unpopular AV kid who knew things about computers back when no one owned one, and no one needed technical support, has now become a valuable commodity. Geeks know how to beat computer games. They can reformat your hard drive. They can help you with your taxes, and make excellent Trivial Pursuit teammates. Geeks know things. Everyone needs them for one thing or another. That makes people like them--by necessity.

So, what about all those geeks who sat with me at the uncool table, and tried to pretend we didn't wish we could be friends with the popular kids? Where are they now? Rejoicing in their geekdom, of course!! What was once a mark of shame has become a badge of honor, at least if my friends are any indication (they're not the same ones from school, but they might as well be), only now, some of those very same qualities which made us untouchables in the past are the things that make us interesting adults today. All that reading pays off in the end, and the uncool kids usually have to develop other positive traits to make up for the lack of obvious social graces. Things like conversational ability, interesting personality, humor and kindness are often the result of years of geeky adolescence. Some of us have discovered that it's really fun to be a geek, and embraced the title with fondness, even ambition.

Ambition? Yes, just that. Let me explain. Sometime last week, a friend sent a "geek test", a lengthy exam to determine one's geek quotient. Ked and I both took the test, and, to neither of our surprise, we are both officially geeks. We had so much fun with the test that we passed it around to some of our friends. We all had a two day email conversation, reporting our scores and begging for bonus points because we had some other geek-factor of note, which the test failed to acknowledge. It was fine geek fun. As it turns out, almost all of my friends who took the test are, in fact, geeks, which I'm sure plays a large role in why we like them. Birds of a feather and all that. The thing I found particularly amusing was that the people who didn't qualify for geek status were embarrassed by it , or at least disappointed. If only we had all known as children that someday other people would be "geek wannabes," it could have made the awkward years much more bearable. It's become cool, in the parallel reality of adulthood, to be the best geek you can be.

Are you a geek? Are you uncertain, and want to find out for sure? Take the test. I scored 25.5%, which, according to the scale provided, makes me a total geek, but a couple of my friends outdid my score by a considerable margin. One of our friends had his brother take the test, and the guy scored a whopping 43.19527%. The really amazing thing about that one is that he didn't score that high by excelling in any of the expected geek categories. He wasn't dumped at a dance, and doesn't own the expanded editions of all the predictable sci fi movies. He's done things like design and build nuclear reactors, and studies fractal towers for fun. I'm not sure that in my mind he really qualifies as a geek, since I would categorize him as more of an "exceptionally smart person", so I won't hold him up as a target goal for you, but can you out-geek me? It shouldn't be too hard. I'm a total geek, but there were several categories that left my level of geekosity in the dust. Go ahead, join in the Geek-off. You know you want to be a geek. It's cool to be a geek.