When I was in 8th grade, roughly twelve to thirteen years old, all of my preconceived notions about life slowly began to chip and crumble away. I held onto them as long as I could, all the way until College if truth be told, but it caused me no end of confusion and head scratching. Everything I thought about what sort of people were geeks, gamers, comic readers, and metal heads was slowly torn apart.
An interesting thing to happen while leaving childhood and growing into adulthood, an already demanding time on a maturing mind.
These preconceived notions came from multiple different sources in my childhood. I was taught a very strict moral code from my parents, for example, and was a rather obedient child when it came to such behaviors. School said drugs were bad, so I agreed. Why would they tell me otherwise? Cigarettes were unhealthy, so I avoided them. Alcohol made you drunk, and being drunk made you do stupid and harmful things. I would never taste that unnecessary substance of alcohol, I vowed. Pre-marital sex? Irresponsible and immoral.
Then came my own natural inclinations. I liked many popular cartoons such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers, certainly, but I also liked video games no one had heard of, such as EarthBound, Chrono Trigger and Secret of Evermore. I liked drawing more than sports. I read Garfield comics with my friend Brandon out loud on the school bus instead of discussing sports. We recited skits from Animaniacs instead of the latest episode of 90210 (we weren’t even in middle school! That show was for teenagers!). We sung the melodies to Super Mario RPG instead of the latest pop craze that bored us.
All behaviors that weren’t normal, and thus drove us into the realm of outcasts. I determined that these things that I liked were clearly not cool, and as a result anyone else that liked them was obviously not cool as well.
Then there were my siblings. My brother was six years older than me, yet he was also the most influential male in my life at the time. My father provided, and I always yearned for his approval, but my brother was my model for adulthood. As he entered high school, he is what I started to envision I should be. Unfortunately, he was quite bitter and angry in high school, and most of all, aware of his intellect.
That was something that I latched onto. Intelligence. For the longest time I thought I was not smart because my grades in school were not always good, but that wasn’t the case at all. The rest of the kids were idiots, and I was smart. Therefore intelligence made you uncool.
From that point on my perception began to change. Why did I follow such moral rules as not doing drugs or drinking alcohol? Because only an idiot would do those things. An intelligent person didn’t need any of that, and was better off without it. What about sex? Only stupid people dedicated so much time to trying to get laid. Intellectuals had more interesting things to do with their time. Idiots played Mortal Kombat and Madden, intellectuals played Final Fantasy and Shining Force. Idiots read Goosebumps and Animorphs, intellectuals read Lord of the Rings and Sphere.
At the time, heavy metal, or at least the sort my brother shared with me, was also relatively niche, or felt as such. So I believed only intelligent people listened to heavy metal, and idiots listened to everything else.
From roughly fifth to seventh grade this worldview served me pretty faithfully. The problem is it was based on the limited world view of a child. I was not aware that the town I grew up in was not a good example of towns all over America, let alone the world. Sure, it was a good sample of some of them. The sort of town that was relatively low to middle-low income, where everyone’s parents had gone to that same school and high school together. No one left town, they were all still there. They had grown up knowing each other, and now their kids were doing the same.
In that sort of small town, a lot of those old fashioned High School mentality and values stick. Kids are taught sports are important because they were to the parents. Now those parents are working meaningless jobs that offer no more fulfillment than food for the family and a roof over their heads. Suddenly you begin to see where the notion that the best years of one’s life are in high school might come from.
In eighth grade that all changed. My brother was in his second year of College by that point, so I no longer had him to model off of. Not like I used to. Instead I heard of glory days in College filled with other awesome geeks and loners, the best friends he had ever met. Meanwhile I was still stuck in middle school.
I expected to be a loner and outcast there, too. I wasn’t too upset at moving considering I had very few friends, but I wasn’t expecting to make many new ones, either.
So imagine my surprise when kids that looked like they were skaters, jocks, and preppies started asking me about my art. Asking me if I ever played Breath of Fire 3. Telling me about Final Fantasy Tactics.
It was startling. Suddenly I was outnumbered by friendly faces that knew something of my interests, yet still seemed so different. Instead, the number of kids that made fun of me was in the minority. Only a handful of them, maybe not even. When one of them stole my sketchpad and tore out all the drawings, the school Principal dealt out actual justice instead of letting the kid that would ridicule and torment me get away with it.
I was making friends, quite a number of them, yet still insisted I was a loner and outcast. I did it because that was the label I had stuck myself with. What confounded me most were all the other kids that should have been loners and outcasts as well.
Kids that were interested in heavy metal hanging out and talking to skaters and jocks. Goth kids obsessed with vampires talking about going to parties with the preppy blondes. One of the punk rockers in the marching band dating one of the blonde cheerleaders. I couldn’t understand it, and for a few years I bounced around the different groups trying to figure out where I belonged. I had my primary friends that I could always talk video games and Metallica with, but I also tried to get to know the Ska kids that listened to bands like The Hippos and The Aquabats. I tried to hang out with some of the Christian marching band kids. I asked a girl out for the first time in my life Freshman year of high school…
...and then kind of became a creepy stalker so let’s skip over the rest of that.
Yet nowhere did I ever feel like I belonged, and one of the greatest reasons was because everyone I met contradicted my world view. People that I thought should be stupid because they insisted on liking certain things also liked things or believed things that should have made them intellectuals. People that I was prepared to call my enemy extended a hand out to instead be my friend. It all baffled and astounded me, and I had no idea what was really going on.
After I posted my Geek and/or Nerd article, a friend of mine linked me Patton Oswalt’s article on destroying and rebuilding geek culture. The problem I have with his article is that he is doing what I had done, and in some ways still continue to do. He creates a definition of what a geek or nerd is based on his life experiences, and then insists on finding a way to go back to that definition.
Yet just as no one will give you a consistent answer on what exactly a Hipster is (aside from maybe “douchebag”), no one can give you a consistent answer on what a geek or nerd is. I’ve tried to define them as being divided between interests of entertainment or pop culture media and being academic, but the two ideas often form a sort of Venn Diagram. It’s not helpful, and it also is still going in the wrong direction.
Geeks and nerds are labels we attach to explain away certain ideas of what certain people are. These ideas are informed by life experiences and mainstream media. We expect geeks to have glasses. We expect nerds to be smart. We expect geeks to have neckbeards. We expect nerds to be clumsy.
These are all meaningless traits that can fit anyone, though. If our modern idea of a geek or nerd was ever legitimate, it was a long time ago and started to die in the 90’s. It is gone now, and no longer exists.
The terms “geek” and “nerd” are built out of a variety of conflicting world perceptions, none of which sync up. However, they provide a shortcut to mental images of what someone is supposed to be. Just as saying punk rocker may conjure images of a dyed mohawk, eyebrow piercings, a lanky frame and torn jeans, saying “geek” might conjure someone with glasses, unkempt facial hair and a Star Wars t-shirt they bought from that convention six years ago.
There are no geeks or nerds. Not any longer. Just people who label themselves as such.