The other day while we were in the car, my daughter Violet blurted out of nowhere, “I’m a nerd.”
It startled me at first, although it’s always fascinating to clock your kid’s own perceptions of themselves. The trail to self-discovery is possibly the most amazing one any of us venture down. And as parents, witnessing our own flesh and blood come to these observations takes the journey to a whole new level.
Before I could say anything like, “Oh no you’re not, honey! You’re a super cool kid,” I caught myself. That wasn’t what I wanted to say, even if my gut reaction was to fight the word she’d just said: nerd.
“Nerd” might be a word that has caught on in recent years and is now considered a cool brand in the adult world that includes Comic Con-types, scientists, and various other artists and performers who revel in their nerd-dom — and that is a beautiful thing.
But with kids, it’s different.
The word “nerd” has always been a jab, an insult, or a curse. I know it’s been a long time since I was in the second grade like Violet, but as much as some things have changed, others haven’t. Kids are still hard on each other. If not as early as the second grade, then certainly not long after. By middle school, social pecking orders and pigeonholes will be everywhere they turn.
I wanted to tell my daughter that she wasn’t a nerd. Sure, she might have some nerdy tendencies, but so do tons of kids her age. They like to play video games, Pokémon, and would rather watch anime on YouTube than play ball at the sandlot. Yet, in a life filled with moments where I haven’t looked before I leaped, I’m proud to say that this time I bit my lip. I thought about what Violet had just proclaimed before saying anything.
And my response, when it finally came, was perhaps the truest thing I’ve ever said to any of my gang of three.
“You know what, kid,” I told her. “Nerds are the coolest. They really are. If you’re a nerd, that makes me happy. Because I’m a nerd, too. And nerds rule.”
It wasn’t a lie. I am a nerd. My passions include reading books, making music, and obsessing over wild trout-eating insects in a stream. I’m no star quarterback, and was never even close.
It wasn’t easy though. And that’s the hard part of all this.
I often felt alone when I was a child. I had friends and all, but those school years weren’t easy for me. I don’t recall being labeled a nerd outright like some kids, but I wasn’t a member of the popular group. I was, by all intents and purposes, an outsider and nerds were the kids that I could relate to. We rode the bus together (hoping nobody would mess with us), did our work, got good (or decent) grades, enjoyed learning, and wanted to succeed. After all, we knew that social success was never going to be our thing.
I think it made me a better person, too. I really do. The popular guys with high testosterone and cute popular girls existed on the other side of the invisible wall to me. I walked through the school halls mostly alone, daydreaming about summertime. School dances gave me anxiety; the very thought made me break out into a cold sweat. No one would dance with me, and I wouldn’t dare ask anyone, either.
My point is that I’m pretty happy with the man that I’ve grown to be. I’m a really good dad and I live a pretty interesting life. I might still be a loner at heart (and in town), but I am at peace knowing I’ve been guided by my own interests all of these years. I have never clung to that “crowd mentality” of so many who live like carbon copies of their popular peers.
Look around you and you will find that so many of the most intelligent and caring people in your life are self-proclaimed nerds. They are encouraged by their passions and limitless empathy, making this strange world a better and more interesting place. Chances are, most of the bands you like, movie stars you idolize, books you dig, and majority of the celebrity chefs you follow were nerdy kids. Perhaps to varying degrees, but always in the eyes of those who weren’t.
That’s who I want my kids to be. I hope my kids are nerds. As for my daughter, I think she was just trying the word on; seeing if she could feel it in her skin. But for me, it was a revelation and a half.
These school years, as important as they are, are ultimately designed to prepare your child for life. For loving, and working, and smiling, and crying in a world that so often tries to knock you down for being different.
There’s more to life than middle school dances. And when you’re young and different, you’re way cooler than you could ever possibly know — even if it doesn’t seem like it.