Over the weekend, I was on a train, and saw two young-ish chaps talking quite excitedly. They were twenty years old at most, and they were chatting as they passed what looked like a glossy magazine back and forth.
If you’re thinking it might have been a … let’s say ‘gentlemen’s leisure interest periodical’, then I’m sorry to disappoint you; it was, as I saw when they sat quite close to me, a glossy rulebook or other supplement for a role-playing (or tabletop miniature combat) game, and their excitement and interest seemed to stem from the implications of this on their chosen game – I could hear them saying things like ‘magic attacks’ and ‘stats’, which rather reminded me of my teen years.
It probably won’t surprise longtime blog readers to know that I was what is now known as ‘a nerd’, though back in those days you were more likely to be labelled a ‘square’ or ‘boffin’. But we all know what that means – probably wearing glasses, not physically confident, not very good at talking to girls, and so likely to have solitary (or at least indoor) hobbies such as playing Dungeons & Dragons or computer games, or reading books or comics. And of course there were quite a few of us at school, as well as all the others who weren’t like that.
Strangely enough – on a mathematical basis if nothing else – my school’s equivalent of the cheerleaders and jocks so often shown in American films seems to have been known as ‘the popular kids’. I say ‘strangely’ because the school year I was in had so many ‘factions’ in it (why, even the secretary in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off refers to “the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies, dickheads” at Bueller’s school), that if you took out my group of friends, the other groups such as the gothic kids and the very studious kids, and the various loners, there were probably only about fifteen of the so-called ‘popular kids’, and none of us really gave a monkey’s about them and what they did, so I have no idea where the presumed ‘popularity’ came from.
It’s not like we ever took a vote on it or anything… though maybe it was an early example of the kind of ‘implied consensus’ or ‘silent majority’ that you often come across in later life. Returning to a film that was out at the time (and whilst it may seem lazy to refer to 1980s films, they were the cultural backdrop of the time, and I think we tend to try to find something that mirrors our own experiences in films and other stories), there’s a nice exchange in The Breakfast Club which may touch on the truth of this:
Your friends […] look up to us.
THE GEEK (LAUGHING)
You’re so conceited, Claire. You’re so conceited.
… I never actually heard the ‘school dynamic’ verbalised like this, but I hope I would have responded in this fashion, as my circle of friend didn’t look up to the ‘popular kids’. We were too busy worrying that playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon on our ZX Spectrum computers would, as legend had it, kill the keyboard before its natural expiry date.
Anyway, when I saw the two chaps on the train at the weekend, I looked at them with a mixture of recognition and almost-pity; I say ‘almost’ because I was genuinely happy with my life in my teen years, even if the things that made me happy were incomprehensible – or risible – to other people: I was more concerned about whether I’d get my D&D character to Level 5 than whether I’d get to home base (no, not the shop) with a girl (and one of those events certainly seemed much more probable than the other during that era of my life). So I can’t honestly look back on that period, and the way I led my life, in such a way that I pity those who seem to be treading the same path.
Yes, I could have shouted to the chaps on the train, “for the love of God, shave off the wispy beards and get some contact lenses and spend more money on cool clothes than 20-sided dice, and maybe you’ll get to touch a boob this year”, but they seemed pleasant and happy enough, and besides it’s possible that they were both total hits with the ladies (or gents, I don’t want to presuppose too much), and that I’m just projecting.
But after I’d thought about this sort of thing a bit, and both wallowed in nostalgia and cringed at the recollection of the clothes and large aviator-style glasses I wore, it occurred to me that there are often articles in papers and magazines nowadays with headings such as ‘The Geeks Inherit The Earth’, talking about how the rise of the internet, and the information age, has meant that many of my pasty cohorts have become very successful in their chosen fields, with the financial rewards attached to that. The heads of IT firms, founders of websites, creators of best-selling computer games and apps, and even the directors of films, are shown to have had classically nerdy formative years – and whilst some of them have made their way in the world by appealing to nerds alone, many of them work in fields with wider audiences.
It’s intellectually amusing to see large crowds of people getting excited about seeing films like Watchmen and Avengers Assemble, when I was reading the source comics twenty-odd years ago, and whilst there’s a slight frisson of ‘Hah! I was right all along!’, I can’t get too triumphant about it – possibly because having that kind of teenagehood doesn’t necessarily prepare you for being the victor, and maybe because of that sense of loving something niche that gets a little soured when it breaks through to a larger market (which of us hasn’t either been or known someone who talks up a band, but the minute they get big, starts talking about them ‘selling out’?). More than anything else, though, I think it’s because the stuff I was into back then, like the stuff I’m into now, was a genuine interest, and wasn’t on my list of ‘Likes’ to impress other people: it was stuff I was actually into.
Which, it strikes me, is probably why there are fewer bold claims of triumph from the swots and nerds and squares; whilst the people who were concerned about looking cool as teenagers are keen to claim they were right all along, when offered the chance to write a book, Bill Gates writes about future technology and the like. Whilst the ‘popular kids’ at school spent a lot of time (and, I’ll wager, their parents’ money) on their outfits for the ‘5th year social’ (aka what would now probably be called a Prom), I was reading and re-reading Batman Year One, and not bothering about what anyone might think about this.
I think that’s why the articles you see about the Rise Of The Nerds will tend to be written in the third person plural – that is, not written by the geeks in question; because they’re still out there, doing their thing – coding, writing, rolling dice or whatever. But the chances are it’s indoors.
They say the best revenge is living well, but I suspect many of those who were made to feel somehow ‘geeky’ will be living well albeit unseen by those who may have ostracised them in the past. Except for those of us who decide to post about it on the internet, of course.