Summer 1981: library club meets each Wednesday afternoon. Our little bodies stay pale well into July as we hunch cross-legged to watch nature films and complete assignments in preparation for Gifted Grade Four. Tantalized by prizes for solving the bonus question, we weave through the stacks in search of the longest river, the deadliest snake, the capital of Turkey, the names of the muscles strapped across the human chest. And every week, I meet these challenges in satin track shorts and calf-high athletic socks. Ringed with two yellow stripes, these socks are perfect for tucking my library card snug against my leg. My signature move is smoothly whipping out the card while sliding my books across the check-out desk and nonchalantly tossing my bowl-cut hair. I fancy myself the Reference Section “It Girl”, knees barked from crawling to scan the bottom shelves. In reality, fourth grade would soon unveil some stiff competition.
Immersed in the awkward culture of an advanced curriculum, I swam through elementary school flanked by the geek team. My peers were reluctant girls who talked to no one and doughy boys who understood commands like “go to” and “run” and, hobbled by this language of technology, could speak only to one another. Our outfits foreshadowed the adults we would become, blood and guts packed in nerdy shells that puberty would stretch up and out. In class we shone but at play we were dulled by compound shortcomings: the asthmatic one with the stupid glasses, the chubby one with the briefcase, the one who refused to leave the reading nook even when threatened with detention for not making friends.
Then there were the kids who tried to shuck their geek skin. Determined to dodge brainer status, they sabotaged their grades with sassy backtalk, “inappropriate” creative expression, or passionate denial of their smartness. One kid spent math class drafting excruciatingly detailed scenes of nursing homes engulfed in flames, residents escaping in wheelchairs, old ladies’ bouffant hair-dos smoking like fiery clouds. Ironically, unfailingly, the pursuit of hipness led these “rebels” deeper into geekiness, descending into fate’s maw like tiny tragic heroes. Plopped at the feet of destiny in bunchy skirts and ill-tailored trousers.
I was never hazed into the geek all-stars with text-book-hoisting challenges or track meet inadequacy; nonetheless, outsider moments litter my past. Most often, these occurred when I applied myself to getting the fuck out of Geektown. And the most cringe-evoking events involved confrontation with kids who appeared magically exempt from humiliation. Cool girls seemed to lurk around every corner, waiting to halt me with a stop-sign palm on my chest or bear witness to my broken composure. I imagined them toting pocket-size notebooks, which they could whip out like my library card, logging failures in my permanent uncool record.
Of course, I wasn’t the only one with a bad social report card; even in this, gifted rivals nipped at my heels. Were you the girl at the dance in the denim mini and cowgirl blouse, home perm springing from your head like moss–the one who visited the restroom then danced like mad till hometime, skirt hem crammed in the seat of her tights? The guy who arrived in September wearing a pink t-shirt, neatly pressed sweat pants, and polished dress shoes? No? Then, perhaps that was you strutting to your seat on Bus 16-B with a contraption the size of a brick strapped to your belt. You owned the first Walkman, a silver machine heavy enough to drag your pants to your ankles. Headphones perched above your skull like a corrective medical device, leaking Corey Hart, you were first…but no one cared.
These anecdotes depict a rather brutal youth, but life among the dorks wasn’t always agonizing; it was sometimes even beautiful. Over-achievers in every sense, we often had the good stuff, like state-of-the-art Thermoses and complicated wrist watches. Sets of collector cards, immaculate and complete. And school supplies: tack-sharp pencils, fully stocked geometry set, erasable pens, lick-and-stick reinforcements, and a plaid, zippered case in which to tote these wonderful things.
Solitary, earnest and a little grotesque, it is difficult to describe what makes geeks so strangely sexy. We simply are. A perverse force impels us to put in the extra effort, to laugh and snort and suck air in rowdy gasps. To trip over the same furrow of carpet every time, scattering parcels like seeds across the foyer. To wear the pilled acrylic sweater day after day while the rest of our bodies remain impeccably groomed. To research it to death and then tell the story the worst way I know how, packing in dozens of breathless digressions before I reach the end.