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The upside of being a geek

My son, my oldest child, will graduate from our parish school in a few weeks and head to the public high school. The very large and intimidating (but excellent) public high school. And I have to admit, the thought makes my stomach do little flips. Not good flips.

I won’t go so far as to say that I’m having flashbacks, but the thought of my baby standing in the Ground Zero of teenage cruelty known as the cafeteria — or even worse, phys ed class — is almost more than I can bear. I was not among the “cool” kids in high school. I was anything but, wearing so many uncool labels it was hard to keep track: twirler, folk group singer, honor society member, CYO president. Add to that the fact that I never went to a party at the bleachers and spent most of my free time at my parish church and, well, you probably get the picture. Last one picked for the team. Any team, from field hockey to square dancing.

So when I saw this story in the New York Times today, I ripped it out and left it on the kitchen table for my son and my tween daughter to read. Alexandra Robbins, 34, author of “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth,” is a former “power dork” who has made a career out of helping teenagers realize that being unpopular in high school is often a good indicator that you’ll go far later on. Her book chronicles the lives of high school archetypes — the Loner, the New Girl, the Nerd and the Band Geek.

From the story in the Times:

Their stories beautifully demonstrate things we know intrinsically: being popular is not always the same as being liked, that high school is more rigid and conformist than the military, and that the people who are excluded and bullied for their offbeat passions and refusal to conform are often the ones who are embraced and lauded for those very qualities in college and beyond — what Ms. Robbins has dubbed Quirk Theory.

As anyone who’s seen movies like “Heathers” knows, the social agonies of high school are nothing new. But the Internet has magnified those feelings of alienation for the oddballs. Partly it’s the relentless exposure to celebrity culture, to images of perfection and roaring success with little discernible talent. (Hello, Kardashians.) But it goes beyond issues of appearance.

“Facebook is now the online cafeteria,” Ms. Robbins says. “It’s this public space, largely unsupervised, and it mirrors the cafeteria dynamic where you walk in and have to find a place to belong. At school, you have to pick a table. Well, on Facebook you not only have to pick a table, you have to pick who’s at your table and who’s not. And then kids feel they have to be publicists for themselves, maintaining their photos and status. It’s exhausting.”

Also exhausting is the care and feeding of popularity, which Ms. Robbins has discovered is not so much about being liked (some popular teenagers are liked, many are not) as about being known. “Popularity is a combination of visibility, influence and recognizability,” she says. “If you’re someone who engages in studying or practicing violin, these are not activities that put you in front of the student body. So these kids aren’t in the popular crowd, but it doesn’t say anything other than the fact that their talents are not visible.”

In other words, the president of the chess club may have more real friends than the cheerleader, but still be considered unpopular.

As a former geek (and perhaps a current geek who just doesn’t realize it), I can attest to Ms. Robbins’ theories. The very things that made me “odd” in high school made me “interesting” in college. My willingness to walk to the beat of a different drummer served me well once I was out of the popularity-is-everything world of high school. I attribute a lot of that not only to my family but to my involvement in CYO, which was — at least where I lived — the very best version of youth ministry, a powerful combination of service, spirituality and social events. We sang in nursing homes and planned liturgies, but we also went to dances and hung out together at church when many of our classmates were getting into trouble.

It’s one of the reasons I’ve been pushing my son to get involved in our own parish youth ministry. In fact, the two of us are heading to Indianapolis in November — along with about 25,000 other teenagers — for the annual National Catholic Youth Conference. I want him to see that he is not alone in his thinking, his values, his beliefs, even if he finds himself alone now and then in the cafeteria at school.

And as Ms. Robbins points out in the Times story, knowing who you are and being willing to break from the crowd is critical:

Ms. Robbins has many deeply comforting words for these teenagers; and one story speaks in particular to those who’ve been right there with the high school outcasts. It’s about an experiment performed by the late-19th-century French naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre on caterpillars that were hard-wired to follow each other in a long head-to-tail line.

“Fabre set them up in such a way that they were following each other around the rim of a flowerpot — with their favorite food only inches away,” Ms. Robbins says. “For seven days they followed each other around until they died of starvation and exhaustion. They couldn’t see how a simple deviation from the path would get them to the food they needed right away.”

Geeks are many things, Ms. Robbins suggests. But one thing they aren’t are caterpillars.

To read the full Times story, click HERE.

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