For the modern adult, nothing signifies self-confidence, street credibility and authenticity like one simple confession: “I was such a nerd in high school.” (Emphasize “such” with a dramatic sigh. Then roll your eyes.) It’s pretty easy now to gaze upon the past with rose-colored — and thick-framed — glasses. It’s popular to have been unpopular. A new world order has unfolded, with nerds ascendant.
But someone forgot to post the memo in high school cafeterias and locker rooms across America, where the shift has barely dented teenagers’ rigid social hierarchies. The results are disjunctive: while adolescent geekiness is something to brag about in hindsight, it’s much harder to embrace when you’re living through it, day after day, in the crucible of high school.
As Alexandra Robbins writes in “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth,” “there have been surprisingly few trickle-down effects from the adult Age of the Nerd to the student world.” Bullying and exclusion are rampant. Pressure is building in schools to standardize not just testing, but students as well. When students buckle under that weight, tragedies happen (the Columbine shootings; the recent spate of suicides among gay teenagers). Instead of inspiring redoubled efforts for tolerance and inclusion, such outcomes may narrow social norms even further, making classmates and teachers hyperaware of students who are “different.”
Robbins’s mission is noble. She wants to push back against the marginalization of nonconformists, whom she calls the “cafeteria fringe.” She writes, “It is unacceptable that the system we rely on to develop children into well-adjusted, learned, cultured adults allows drones to dominate and increasingly devalues freethinkers.”
Her fundamental argument is simple. Many of the traits that correlate with “outsider” status among high school students — originality, self-awareness, courage, resilience, integrity and passion — reveal themselves as assets later in life. (If you’re geeky enough to know the definition of “schadenfreude” as an underclassman, you’ll probably get to experience that very feeling at a high school reunion one day.)
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