Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Surviving Nerdhood

A recent interview with Sylvia Rimm (author of See Jane Win) in Education News covers a variety of fascinating topics related to gifted education, and can be found here. For this blog, I thought I'd write about the last question, which broaches the topic I find most fascinating: Nerdhood.

Yes, nerdhood. According to Rimm, surving "nerdhood" as an adolescent can do great things for you later in life. It "builds independence and selectivity about friendships," she says. "As former governor of New Jersey Christine Whitman pointed out, her separateness in adolescence gave her the strength to be strong in politics when at the end of the day, you may indeed feel very alone. There are many successful adults who viewed themselves as nerds in adolescence. ... Parents and teachers can reassure these kids that having a few good friends is more important than the popularity that is so admired in middle and high schools. "

As a recovering nerd myself, I find this reassuring indeed. It is true that being well-liked by people who were born within 6 months of you and live within 3 miles of you has little bearing on the kinds of skills you'll need to make your way in the wider world. And some realizations you gain from social isolation can be a big positive. Making a living as a writer, for instance, involves a lot of rejection. I don't take it personally. Likewise, I threw myself a book launch party for Grindhopping last week, and I was amazed by the number of acquaintances who bothered to stop by. Since my self-perception doesn't depend on the number of people who show up at my parties, I could simply enjoy the serendipity of who showed up, and not worry about who didn't. You avoid a lot of mental angst that way.

I recall Mavis Leno (wife of Jay) saying in a magazine interview once that she could be happy her whole life simply knowing she'd never have to live through middle school again. If middle school was rough for beautiful, brilliant Mavis, that says a lot about the institution. But even so, while having a rough time in adolescence is certainly not something parents should hope for with their children (the Columbine anniversary lurks around the corner... and who knows what demons inspired yesterday's shooting at Virginia Tech) viewing it as a character building experience is better than viewing it as a trauma. And parents can help by pointing out that in the long run, it's better to be smart and ambitious than to be adored by people who will never do a blessed thing in their lives.

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