For me, the word “nerd” didn’t exist until the television series Happy Days.
That was the term the super-cool character Fonzie used to describe everyone who wasn’t—well, him. We all wanted to be Fonzie, of course, but none of us were. Including Henry Winkler, who played Fonzie.
The truth is, most of us were nerds. Even if we were jocks. Or brains. Or metalheads, punks or stoners. It seems like we spent too much of our teenaged years trying to fit in with one group or another. Or, in some cases, several such groups.
I was one of those early-’80s kids pumping quarters into the games at video arcades. And the gamer subculture was already in its formative stages. I made new friends based solely on our shared love of Space Invaders and Donkey Kong and Asteroids. I would walk five miles in the freezing cold to spend one quarter and play Mario Bros. for hours on end, secure in the fact that my high score was untouchable. I was a gamer more than a decade before I bought my first console system.
I had always loved comic books, and when I was around 11 or 12 years old I got into superhero comic books in a huge way, building up a sizeable collection that I traded and read with new junior high school friends. We also created our own superheroes and wrote and drew our own stories. We were in deep. I never got out of the comic books entirely, although my collecting slowed during high school, when many of my friends no longer talked about comic books anymore, and stopped altogether for nearly a decade after I began college. I just didn’t have the discretionary income to afford new comics along with my other habits, like the occasional meal.
I’m reading comics again now. Selectively. And, I still love them. As comic book properties rule the movie theaters and television screens, being a comic book fan no longer marginalizes a person, or a group of people with similar proclivities. Don’t tell anyone, but even girls read comics now.
I’ve always loved to read, for both entertainment and to learn new things. Very early on I surmised that a public school education wasn’t truly about learning anything. Any curriculum that includes discussing the “upside” to human slavery should immediately disabuse anyone of that notion. I thought then, as now, the true value of education was to develop my own critical thinking abilities. A surprising number of “educators” do not subscribe to that belief. To them, education is about rote memorization and repeating back answers that they want to hear. Most of what passes for the subject history is as slanted and probably false as Parson Weems’s stories about George Washington.
The word skepticism has a negative connotation for many people. But, I think the belief that certain knowledge, about anything, is impossible is a healthier belief than stubborn cocksureness. As I’ve said before, I dislike rabid atheists equally as much as I dislike rabid biblical literalists. Actually, I’ve said “Bible-thumpers” in the past, but that’s probably pejorative. Critical thinking involves arriving at your own conclusions based on the available evidence, and, at times, common sense. This is not the prevailing operating philosophy, at least it wasn’t in the American public schools of my youth.
So, I read still. Fiction. Non-fiction. Magazines, newspapers, and cereal boxes.
It has been suggested that nerds enjoy discussing non-serious subjects very seriously. I do that, too, I guess. A serious discussion about fashioning Kryptonite weapons to kill Superman is not something I would shy away from. Or wondering aloud why the Death Star’s levels seemed to be oriented on the north-south axis instead of spherical layers like an Everlasting Gobstopper. Such mental calisthenics are enjoyable to me.
In case you’re wondering why I’m listing all of these things, the evidence of my nerdiness (as if you needed more), I’ll explain. Recently, one of my granddaughters asked me, quite seriously in fact, if I was a nerd when I was growing up. Without hesitation, I told her I most certainly was, and still am. She just turned thirteen years old, an age I can still remember well, when you just wanted to fit in with the crowd and never felt like you genuinely could. More succinctly than I’m doing now, I explained to my granddaughter that sometimes it’s normal to feel different or “weird,” but the secret is everyone feels that way sometimes. In this respect, we are all nerds.
As Adam Scott’s character Ben Wyatt said in an episode of Parks and Recreation (I doubt you’re going to find a nerdier beginning to a sentence than this one), “Nerd culture is mainstream now. So, when you use the word ‘nerd’ derogatorily, it means you’re the one that’s out of the zeitgeist.”
Of course, my granddaughter—the 13-year-old—assured me that she’s one of the popular girls. Not a nerd.