Revenge of the Nerds

We were trick-or-treating and having a wonderful time when a boy dressed as a nerd walked up to the door where my kids were waiting. He was a stereotypical nerd: high water pants hitched up to his armpits, mismatched socks, pocket protector, buck teeth, and big black taped glasses. As the homeowner answered the door, the nerd brayed in a high pitched voice, “Is this the advanced calculus class?” The homeowner and the adults standing around all laughed appreciatively. I was not laughing, in fact, I felt like crying. (In the spirit of full disclosure, we are a family of nerds. We dressed as a black hole, the cat’s eye nebula, dark matter, and a red giant…enough said.)I found myself wondering, if someone had dressed as a person from a minority culture, in a costume that stereotyped that culture, and acting in a manner that mocked that culture; what would the reaction have been then? No doubt, it would have generated discomfort, perhaps even anger. It may have even been newsworthy; yet no one even batted an eye at this costume and behavior. To be fair, my kids didn’t seem to notice. It didn’t ruin anyone’s evening, but it bothered me. I don’t understand why making fun of intellectually gifted people is acceptable in our culture. I don’t blame the boy; I don’t even blame his parents. I do blame Hollywood for perpetuating this stereotype; but mostly I blame our society for denigrating intellectual prowess. We readily celebrate children who are gifted at sports or music; but we seem to be threatened by kids whose gifts are intellectual. It is bad enough that they are made fun of and bullied; but even worse, their gifts are not nurtured in our society. We spend one penny per dollar on gifted education. Rarely do we provide adequate education for these children. We don’t challenge their minds, support their learning, or accommodate their differences. We as a nation seem to be nerd phobic, we can only relate to them if we are disparaging them. These children hold great potential for contributions that could make all our lives better. Many other countries have programs to identify and teach intellectually gifted children to their full potential – but not our country. We are more likely to label them as nerds, eggheads, and brainiacs, to bully and humiliate them for their incredible minds. Our reactions range from benign neglect to outright hostility. We tell them that “all children are gifted,” we refuse to let them work to their abilities, we tell them they must fit in, we resent their curiosity/needs/demands, we give them the message that they are somehow unacceptable to us, merely because their minds work differently than the average kid's. I can’t understand how we can look our collective selves in the mirror. Shame on all the politicians, administrators, teachers, writers, researchers, and parents who are willing to throw these kids under the bus. Yet despite our actions (or lack thereof), many brilliant kids grow up to overcome society’s roadblocks and reach their full potential. I fervently hope that these maligned kids will have the final revenge – as Bill Gates said, “Be nice to nerds, someday you’ll work for one.”