Growing up, August was traditionally the month that I was knocked flat with school anxiety. The last few weeks of summer, I was reliably a train wreck of fear and frayed nerves.
Today, in my late 30’s, I still feel echos of that as August sets in. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been out of school for a long time now; July gives up and some animal part of my brain tells me to hide, to run…from nothing specific or real, just the predatory talons of memory. (I’ve written before, in this post, about my teen habit of avoiding peers by literally climbing walls and hiding above ceiling tiles. I did that.)
So…August. It makes me curious: is it easier for kids today? Specifically, is it easier for nerds? I suspect it might be, or at least I hope it is.
“Nerd” is a strange label because, when I was growing up, it was strictly an insult…but times have changed. It’s no longer the pejorative it once was, and can even have a positive connotation. Popular culture has sort of expanded out enough to where there’s a little breathing room for introverts and obsessives.
A lot of popular TV shows and films have nerd characters now…and they’re presented in a favorable light. You know, mostly. Maybe you’re still laughing at them, but they’re more fully fleshed out characters than they once were. And this matters because, seeing them like this- frequently, in a broad range of formats- it normalizes a way of being. It acclimates people to the type.
Which is great. I’ve liked seeing this change because, when I was a kid, being a nerd meant one thing: playground beatings. All the time. This was due in no small part to the fact that there were no good nerds in popular culture. We didn’t have any role models to buffer us from criticism, so it was open season on the misfits.
Today, you have dozens of shows, films, with nerd characters. But I grew up in the 1980’s. I grew up in a Very White, Very Masculine America. Boys watched GI Joe and He-Man and Hulk Hogan: rampaging, testosterone-wielding manly men! They were everywhere! You couldn’t escape the paradigm! For my part, I was both physically and socially clumsy; worse, I was an introverted reader. The 80’s were a nightmare era for kids like me. Bullying, beatings, rinse, repeat.
But I remember vividly that there was a way to dilute one’s nerdiness: lunchbox selection. Very important. If you were a guy and your lunchbox sported a sufficiently masculine image, it went a little ways towards boosting your dude-credentials. Your lunchbox was your talisman, your charm.
In the weeks before a new school year, I would run around stores in a frenzy. I would flip out, desperate for a lunchbox image I could hide behind. Mom, clueless, would hold one up and say, “Scooby Doo?” And I would go into a panic. I would pull my hair and think, “A talking dog?! I need guns and blood and murder!” I’d dig through boxes, looking for the Terminator or Han Solo…cool, stone-cold killers. Junk Yard Dog. James Bond. Mom would say, “Big Bird?” and I would pull my hair and scream. I couldn’t handle it.
One year, I lucked into the perfect lunchbox. It was a light-from-heaven/angelic-choir scenario: Rambo. I was relieved beyond what I could articulate. The image was all guns and muscles and explosions. I clung to that thing like a life-preserver. And it worked. I noticed a slight (like, eight percent) drop-off in the beatings.
This topic reminds me: someone left a comment here last week (now deleted) saying that the way to raise kids on the spectrum is with tough love. “If you coddle them, it makes them weak,” basically. The phrase “man-up” might have been used (which makes me curious what this person would recommend for female autistics. Should they man-up as well? Woman-up?)
Anyway, the comment made me think of life in the 80’s, the idea that toughness and binary gender roles are absolute goods, and everything else should be hunted down, eliminated. I see this mindset fading…and I see that as a good thing. Where difference is given breathing room, I see happier minds, easier hearts.
My inner nerd loves seeing kids today- the comfortably shy ones- obsessing over books and science and Minecraft. I don’t think they need totemic lunchboxes or tough love; I think they need space to just be.
So…August. I survived my fair share of those. My thoughts are with those of you fighting that struggle now, I know it can be a tough one.