I Am Science…and a Nerd
August 25, 2012 9:35 AM   Subscribe

"I fear my story of a bullied nerd is not unique. This is the reason why I felt compelled to contribute my personal I Am Science. In the vein of an initiative I very much admire, It Gets Better, I hope this post lends itself to a struggling youth grappling with their own nerdom." Marine biologist Dr.Craig McClain, Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center and Chief Editor of Deep Sea News, opens up about growing up as an isolated science nerd in rural America.
posted by Laminda (64 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wither the humanities nerd?
posted by oddman at 9:43 AM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wonder if he was so full of himself in school. Perhaps that is why he was bullied. Because classifying the other as jocks and feeling haughty because he reads scientific journals while his fellow commuters read Cosmo and SI is a sure way to not make friends.

Also, when nerds start blowing their brains out or are kicked out into the streets by their parents or forced into bullshit reparative therapy then maybe we could say there is a similarity to It Gets Better. Heck, I would settle for raising funds for science education like IGB does for The Trevor Project.
posted by munchingzombie at 10:10 AM on August 25, 2012 [11 favorites]


The problem is not being a nerd or anything being anything else in particular. The problem is being stuck in a very small group of schoolmates, with the same classmates year after year. If not the nerd it would be the red haired kid, the kid with a Swedish accent, the kid missing a finger.

One charismatic teacher could break up the natural tendency of immature groups to savage the weak ones. But at a small school that guy is less likely to be there.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:12 AM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


wonder if he was so full of himself in school. Perhaps that is why he was bullied.

Yeah, blame the victim. Nice.
posted by Justinian at 10:17 AM on August 25, 2012 [22 favorites]


I'm a humanities nerd. I'm not sure how different my story would be from his. I'm female, so I didn't have the "getting physically beat up" aspects of his story. I got slapped a few times, but mostly female bullies just stick to the insults. I had male bullies, but that was when I was a little kid and nobody's really trying to pound other kindergarteners' faces in quite yet.

The first day of kindergarten, the leader of the boys decided he hated me on sight. Ergo, my entire class, boys and girls alike, hated my guts. I got held back for my lack of social development (so it was my fault?) and had to do kindergarten for another year. Fortunately, my second class didn't have the assholes that the first one did, and I even managed to have friends. But once I got into first grade, that guy was back again, screaming at me, "You don't belong in this school!" to the entire cafeteria and the like. So I learned early.

I'm not sure "humanities nerd" makes a difference. Instead of being in honors math and science, I was in honors social studies and English. I had a "smart kid" reputation anyway even if I was dumb at math, so I got picked on the same for standing out, being a weirdo, and having glasses. I am convinced that having glasses at age 5 was like waving a flag in front of a bull when it comes to other kids. Eventually, I went off to college, where somehow people no longer gave a shit about my being a smart kid with glasses. The periodic bullying stopped and everything was fine. So there you go.

Unfortunately, the answer to this kind of thing always seems to boil down practically to "switch schools," "home school," or "go off to college where the groups are larger and nobody cares about picking on people any more." That's where the "It Gets Better" similarities kick in, I think. Just like the picked on gay kids, life improves once you just plain leave the vicinity of Those People.

I don't know if the budding nerds in school now have the same issues that we did, though.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:23 AM on August 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


There really needs to be a bullying equivalent to the Kinsey Scale, with people who were exclusively bullied on one end, people who were exclusively bullies on the other, and the vast majority of people (who were some combination of the two) somewhere in the middle. Nerds, in my experience, are as likely to be bullies as jocks, and are often far more vicious about it, because they've bought into the narrative that they're the put-upon good guys. Nerds are my people, but many of them are simply horrible human beings.

In the interest of full disclosure, I would have been a 2 on that proposed scale: Predominantly bullied, but more than incidentally a bully myself. This was mostly from 4th to 8th grade, by high school the bullying going in either direction had mostly stopped (although the bullying that did happen at that point was much more dangerous).
posted by Parasite Unseen at 10:26 AM on August 25, 2012 [20 favorites]


Bless you, Ms. D. Marx (Marks?), for including me in your middle school math/science enrichment program, with its egg drops and toothpick bridges and introduction to programming. I grew up to be a certified humanities nerd, but those guys in the enrichment group taught me an early appreciation for creative thinking, Rush, the Rubik's cube and hanging out with folks who enjoy their minds.
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:26 AM on August 25, 2012


I'm not sure I can feel for him all that much.

I was, until about 11th grade, the smallest kid in my class (girls included). I loved science, I hung out with the local bird watchers group when I was 9 (the fact my sister taught science didn't help). I couldn't play sports, I just sucked at it. I was skinny, we didn't have much money so I wasn't cool, and I was about 2 years behind everyone else in terms of broaching adolescence.

I dealt with it... I had enough sense not to hang around the wrong parts of the school, I collected friends of a similar bent (he couldn't have been the ONLY nerd in his school), and also managed to be adopted by a couple of nerd leaning jocks (there WERE smart jocks, you know, and some of them were interested in the same thing, and a lot of them were decent people) for protection.

I just can't see the "poor me" part of this, it wasn't racism, ethnic prosecution, sexual harassment, it was kids picking on kids, like they've always done.... He needed some help with finding the protective strategies and didn't get it (hell, I didn't even have a Dad to tell me how to handle it, or a brother, I had my Mom and two sisters from the time my Dad died when I was 6 months old, and I managed).

Sounds like he has a great life now, good for him, but this is feeling a bit dramatic for me.
posted by HuronBob at 10:27 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Right now, there's a kid being bullied for being smart, somewhere in this country. A lot of them, actually. Maybe those kids are also kind of arrogant, or they're not "tough" enough, or they're not deploying your patented method of countering the bullies, or not killing themselves, which I guess makes it okay to treat them like shit for being smart and not being shy about being smart. Fuck that. It's nice to know that your 20/20 hindsight blinds you to compassion.
posted by rtha at 10:33 AM on August 25, 2012 [30 favorites]


Yes, because pointing out the author's inability to connect with his peers as equals is an endorsement of bullying.
posted by munchingzombie at 10:36 AM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure I can feel for him all that much.

I dealt with it... I had enough sense not to hang around the wrong parts of the school, I collected friends of a similar bent (he couldn't have been the ONLY nerd in his school), and also managed to be adopted by a couple of nerd leaning jocks (there WERE smart jocks, you know, and some of them were interested in the same thing, and a lot of them were decent people) for protection.


Of course the environment and resources available to him were the same as those available to you.

Jesus Lord, you've been on this web site for 8 years. Have you not payed attention to anything?
posted by benito.strauss at 10:42 AM on August 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


Yeah, you guys are displaying an incredible lack of empathy. Everyone is exactly the same as you and thus has the same options you do. Sheesh.
posted by Justinian at 10:48 AM on August 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


Yes, because pointing out the author's inability to connect with his peers as equals is an endorsement of bullying.

About like pointing out someone drank too much and wore revealing clothing is an endorsement of assault.
posted by Justinian at 10:53 AM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, when nerds start blowing their brains out or are kicked out into the streets by their parents or forced into bullshit reparative therapy then maybe we could say there is a similarity to It Gets Better. Heck, I would settle for raising funds for science education like IGB does for The Trevor Project.

I can't bring myself to care about a few middle class white gay kids killing themselves when so many people in the third world suffer so much worse... Actually I can, because unlike you I'm not interested in playing some gross oppression Olympics game where we discount any and all parallels between human suffering because we don't think that the subjects have suffered enough.
posted by atrazine at 11:04 AM on August 25, 2012 [28 favorites]


Bullying is always bad.

A post on a trade website is not a non-profit raising money to help abused children.

Hope that clears things up.
posted by munchingzombie at 11:06 AM on August 25, 2012


I just can't see the "poor me" part of this, it wasn't racism, ethnic prosecution, sexual harassment, it was kids picking on kids, like they've always done....

Really? That's really your take on this? From the article:

I made myself physically ill before school on most days with the anxiety about how the day might unfold. I was hazed, picked on, bullied, and beat up both physically and emotionally. I still brandish a half inch scar along my right eye from where a fist with a class ring, backed by a jock, tore my flesh after I dared to be different from everyone else.

If the perpetrators of this treatment had been adults rather than children this would be a serious criminal offence. Repeated physical assault and emotional trauma doesn't justify any response of sympathy on your part?

Okay, yeah, you're right. The origin of this violence isn't racism. It isn't sexism. It isn't homophobia. And there are other people who suffer worse. But so what? This is still violence. It is still traumatic. The fact that this is something that kids have always done to each other is relevant only insofar as it means that this experience is incredibly commonplace.

I managed

Good for you. Not everyone else did, and many people take years to get past the way they were treated by their peers. Maybe they're weaker than you. They still deserve a basic level of sympathy from us. You know, because they're people.
posted by mixing at 11:07 AM on August 25, 2012 [13 favorites]


(Sigh. Having posted that I think I've realised I'm overreacting myself. Walking away from this thread I think)
posted by mixing at 11:11 AM on August 25, 2012


> Nerds, in my experience, are as likely to be bullies as jocks, and are often far more vicious about it, because they've bought into the narrative that they're the put-upon good guys. Nerds are my people, but many of them are simply horrible human beings.

Ain't that the truth. There's a type of nerd who who feels passionately that the injustice of bullying is not the cruelty, but that the wrong sort of people (jockish, popular, "shallow" etc.) get to be cruel. Most of them don't actually get bullied, I don't think.

On the flip side, you get the feeling in a lot of situations that the bullying of nerds (as opposed to other forms of youth violence) is informally backed by the adult world around it. The old slashdot thread about the Columbine aftermath has a ton of anecdotes about school admins and other adults who reacted to the shooting not by coming down on the bullies but on their potential or current targets.
posted by postcommunism at 11:14 AM on August 25, 2012 [10 favorites]


The essay by the I Am Science creator is actually really good (better than the one in the post, in my opinion). The I Am Science project seems to be more about diversity of experience; my favorite line:

This lesson was that we can still be ourselves and be successful in science. It didn’t matter if you were a cheerleader, a pink princess, or a hairy-legged feminist. Each can do science and has the potential to do it well.
posted by bluefly at 11:15 AM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I wonder if he was so full of himself in school. Perhaps that is why he was bullied.

It's a weird feed-back thing. Suppose you don't have great social skills, either learned or innate, and your interests are school-y and science-y and don't overlap much with many other kids. Well, you're already separated from your peers. But if you happen to be good at that stuff you can get approval, even admiration, from adults, and there is a big ol' world of scientific knowledge out there, even if it wasn't easily accessible to kids (though I guess that's different these days). So it's easy to build a sense of identity and self-esteem around that.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:23 AM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's simply hard for some people to be friendly and well liked. We try, believe me. You think people want to be the odd one out? I'm kind of tired of saying it so I'm simply going to stop soon, but I firmly believe that legit differences in physiology or brain chemistry cause this. Inability to read faces and social cues. The flattening of affect that causes us to wonder why people feel what they are feeling because we don't even feel it. The fact that we don't find things funny, ever. It is a pretty common believe on metsfilter that up is down, that nerds are actually bigger dicks and therefore deserve bullying. We try. Maybe we give up after years of torment, but we spend our childhoods trying to fit in and we never do.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:26 AM on August 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


HuronBob, I'm from rural Michigan. I was bullied. My graduating class was 53 people, and I knew every single one of them, and no none of them were like me. I do, and you should, know people who had classes even smaller than that. My friend's graduating class was 16. She, like me, had no friends until she went to college. My parents ignored my torment and refused to send me to another school.

Not everybody has the option to "go make new friends" that you think everybody should.
posted by zug at 11:27 AM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ad hominem: this is true, but not everyone who doesn't fit in can't read social cues. Technically I can and I still didn't fit in. That did not help me to technically be able to, because I still didn't get what made people popular (other than "don't be like me"), and I couldn't pull off being anyone who wasn't me. I wasn't exactly clued in to the social fashion trends even if I didn't have autism/Asperger's. Why wasn't I? I don't know. I guess I just didn't "get" it. I don't dress like others do now, still, but it's just less of an issue when I don't have to blend in with the herds for my own survival. I think I was just born weird and it bugged people where I'm from, plain and simple. If I'd grown up in the town I live in now, I don't know if I'd have the same issues, or if that just comes along with being under legal age, period.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:37 AM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Technically I can and I still didn't fit in

Actually or technically? How could you know?

There is a wide wide spectrum. The vast majority of people are never really popular but they arent picked on either. Just because you aren't diagnoses with an autism spectrum disorder doesn't mean there isn't a difference in brain function from popular, or even invisible, people.

I mentioned this before but I underwent some ridiculous extensive testing for autisms spectrum disorders as well, and guess what, I apparently have no known disorder. Why was the testing necessary though? What did people see that made them think I might be autistic?
posted by Ad hominem at 11:52 AM on August 25, 2012


I wonder if he was so full of himself in school. Perhaps that is why he was bullied.

I was bullied a lot in middle school and part of high school. At the time it felt like a very straightforward situation of being bullied because I was seen as smart and different. But in retrospect, I can spot all of the things I was doing that were helping to elicit the bullying and ostracism. That doesn't mean that the bullying was ok; it wasn't, at all, and that the schools tolerated it is unconscionable. But at least in my case, it was a lot more complicated than an innocent victim being targeted by brutes, though I sure thought so at the time.

And the comment above about the bullying Kinsey scale is absolutely correct. There was absolutely a hierarchy of victimization, and like many people I was also a perpetrator (though again, I didn't think so at the time).

I really wish that someone had been both perceptive enough and able to give me some tough-love advice at the time. Something along the lines of "Sure, adolescence is going to suck no matter what, but if you do A, B, and C, and avoid doing X, Y, and Z, it won't suck quite as much." I eventually figured it out on my own, but I could have spared myself a few years of unpleasantness if I had known earlier. And more importantly, once I had a clue about my own role in this, I was also able to see my role in other people being treated badly, and to never do that again.
posted by Forktine at 12:01 PM on August 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


I hate to nitpick, but isn't it "nerddom"?
posted by queensissy at 12:03 PM on August 25, 2012


I hate to nitpick, but isn't it "nerddom"?

Not when it's nerd-om-mani-padme-hum.
posted by Forktine at 12:07 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


I collected friends of a similar bent (he couldn't have been the ONLY nerd in his school)

There were 45 kids in his graduating class at his high school. It's hard, sometimes, when you're in such a small space that there aren't any cracks for you to fall through.
posted by infinitywaltz at 12:13 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's a weird feed-back thing. Suppose you don't have great social skills, either learned or innate, and your interests are school-y and science-y and don't overlap much with many other kids. Well, you're already separated from your peers. But if you happen to be good at that stuff you can get approval, even admiration, from adults, and there is a big ol' world of scientific knowledge out there, even if it wasn't easily accessible to kids (though I guess that's different these days). So it's easy to build a sense of identity and self-esteem around that.

I completely understand and can relate to that having been a big ol' nerd (editor of the poetry journal and president/founder of the anime club/virgin). Looking back I can see all the ways that I was awkward and had poor social skills. I can see how that lead me to feeling like I was set-apart and better than. As an adult I can laugh at myself and I can laugh at my bullies. The whole thing is so silly. But I don't get the sense that the author can do the same.

I should apologize to everyone. I came off hard and should have made it crystal clear that I fundamentally believe that any form of violence is reprehensible. I just found the author to be infuriating and the framing of this post unintentionally prodded me.
posted by munchingzombie at 12:15 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Obviously there comes a point when people consciously or unconsciously try to seize control of their own victimhood. I think it is comforting for people to think that it is something under their own control, if they just stopped liking Monty python and making jokes about knights who say ni all the time or if they hadn't made everyone else feel so dumb they would be popular. I think this is an illusion.

It also changes with time, as you get older you are better able to approximate social conventions and you are able to see the things you did when you were young that broke those conventions. It seems like there was a choice, but really it wasn't.

This isn't like the movies where they give the "ugly" girl a haircut and contacts and she is super popular. The girl that, for whatever reason, failed to cut her own hair or wear contacts is still there under a thin veneer of acceptability.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:19 PM on August 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


But I don't get the sense that the author can do the same.

They may have been the most traumatic experiences of his entire life and heavily informed everything after, making them seem the most important. He also may have PTSD. In a sense he was "held captive" by his tormentors for many years.

I simply stopped going to school. Of course I ended up in court which in retrospect was worse.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:25 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nobody's brought up that part where he refused to join band because he couldn't let himself be that much of a nerd. That part pissed me off. The author still seems completely unaware that maybe joining band would have given him an opportunity to make some like-minded friends. Then again, maybe that wouldn't have worked out if he joined but mainted the attitude that he was in one caste higher than the band geeks.

YES I PLAYED TROMBONE IN MARCHING BAND. LEAVE ME ALONE.
posted by queensissy at 12:27 PM on August 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


uh, "maintained"
posted by queensissy at 12:27 PM on August 25, 2012


It also changes with time, as you get older you are better able to approximate social conventions and you are able to see the things you did when you were young that broke those conventions. It seems like there was a choice, but really it wasn't.

Speaking only for myself -- because I don't actually know how representative my situation was -- I very much disagree. The minute I changed what I was doing, things changed. I still looked awkward and unfashionable, my musical tastes were just as marginal, and I still read too much. I certainly didn't get a make-over, though I probably desperately needed one.

What changed was how I chose to interact with other people. Things like, behaving with a modicum more social grace, reaching out for friendships, treating other people well -- nothing earth-shattering, just edging towards being a pleasant person, and trying hard to be kind to others.

And I want to underline that I'm not victim-blaming or saying that if bullied kids just tried harder the bullies would let off. In my own case, that was partly true -- I was playing a role in my own victimization. In other cases that I read about, like those heart-wrenching descriptions the other year of the kids who committed suicide for being bullied for being gay, it seems purely externally driven. It's not a one-size-fits-all situation, and I think the toleration of bullying by teachers and administrators is the worst of all.
posted by Forktine at 12:31 PM on August 25, 2012 [8 favorites]


I wonder if part of the issue is that adult nerds hardly seem like a marginalized class: see, for example, the huge overrepresentation of physics Ph.Ds in the elite and powerful white shoe consulting and finance firms. Being a nerd and especially a nerd of a certain quant-y type confers a lot of advantages and privileges in the form of financial and cultural capital, at least after leaving the utterly insane social environment that is the American public school system.

But at the same time, difficult childhood experiences can be hard to overcome. And it is definitely harmful to go through a period of time where every day is spent tensely waiting for some fresh indignity, which you are powerless to prevent, to be perpetrated upon you. Adversity leads to resilience only if you can gain some kind of control over the situation. Unfortunately, bullied kids often don't have the resources they need - teachers are no more likely to be an ally to a bullied child than his or her peers, and as many people have pointed out, especially in small schools, bullied kids often don't have any peer support at all. Expecting victims of bullying to never fight back or display any resentment/condescension, or to adapt by changing or disguising their interests, however well-intentioned or principled, has the effect of compounding the stress and lack of control. No matter the reason, this really does screw people up. Hearing that your life is likely to get a lot better if you can tough it out for twelve years is not really enough, but still, it's something, and I don't think only gay bullied kids deserve to hear it.

Also, I think it's telling that a lot of middle-school nerdbashing comes in the form of gendered insults. Boys who are reading or playing music instead of fighting or playing sports are typically attacked as weak, effeminate, and possibly gay. (I of course have less direct experience with girl bullying, but my sense is that something analogous goes on there too, where nerdy girls are perceived as lacking the "proper" feminine qualities.) So I think it's not so crazy to make the connection to gay bullying: both cases involve a certain degree of policing orthodox gender roles. In this case I think a rising tide of gender equality here could really lift all boats.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:48 PM on August 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


MZ, I agree that the author of that article is still holding pretty strongly to his sense of separateness and superiority. But where HuronBob is dismissive of those who didn't have his teen-aged ability to navigate social situations, you and I shouldn't be so dismissive of the author for not yet having achieved the distance and compassion that we're congratulating ourselves for reaching.

And I think he has found a group of friends at this point. "I surround myself with both an off and online community that values, embraces, and celebrates being a nerd." Why shouldn't the grown-up nerds and geeks be allowed to have their own social group, just like the grown-up jocks and sosh's?

But you have made me realize that, while I freely and gladly self-identify as a nerd, it's not the same way McClain does. I'm about a decade older, and so the whole "nerds/geeks as the new cool" idea wasn't there for me. Which is probably lucky, as it has become an aspect of my personality, not my entire identity.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:51 PM on August 25, 2012


because I don't actually know how representative my situation was

I'm glad it worked out for you and thank you for acknowledging that not everyone is complicit in their own bullying.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:52 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jesus Lord, you've been on this web site for 8 years. Have you not payed attention to anything?

Your point? Is it that an opposing opinion on a hot-button topic isn't allowed? 'cuz if that's not it, I don't know what you're getting at.

And, you can call me Bob, I stopped using "Jesus Lord" years ago, MANY years ago.
posted by HuronBob at 12:52 PM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


psst, what are "sosh's?"
posted by en forme de poire at 12:53 PM on August 25, 2012


sosh=preppy/social crowd, usually kids with money, belong to the local country club, frats, etc...
posted by HuronBob at 12:58 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


YES I PLAYED TROMBONE IN MARCHING BAND. LEAVE ME ALONE.

Horns of Jericho. Blow them back into the tumbling walls.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:07 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I played CLARINET in Marching Band. I wanted a saxophone but there was a need for clarinets. (and an oboe in Concert Band which I did so badly, the entire band had to tune a quarter-tone flat to meet me... made the recording they made of the band in concert unlistenable - at least for me)

My parents took me out of the L.A. Public Schools because of how much I was bullied (made worse when the school decided I was smart enough to skip a grade making me the littlest kid in 5th grade... I was put back after a few weeks). They could afford to put me in a private school in the San Fernando Valley with several children of celebrities, so I ended up bullied by a much higher socioeconomic class of bully, including one of the sons of TV Legend Steve Allen (who later wrote a BOOK about his failures as a father - I never looked to see if he wrote anything about the kids his sons bullied).

I ended up in the same High School with one of my other bullies from Junior High... he was being groomed by the football team as a future Star Quarterback when he took a hard hit the wrong way in practice and broke his neck, leaving him a paraplegic. I felt so guilty for my schadenfreude then. But then, a week after graduating High School, one of my bullies was partying too hard and fell from a sixth-floor balcony - the entire class assembled at his funeral, including his victims - we sat together and tried to break each other up. The roles were reversing, and I felt for years that I had some psychic ability to rain retribution on those who picked on me.

But in High School I was at least semi-protected by not being the worst bully-bait in my class - that honor fell to a tall guy with a crew cut (in the 1970s!) who wore his school uniform shirt buttoned at the neck with no tie, whose #1 hobby was the study of Military History and who even non-bullies tried to make him tell them to be quiet, because he would say "hush it!" and it sounded like "Shit". I actually tried to council him on how be less a target, but he didn't listen. Was he "asking for it"? FOR WHAT?
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:09 PM on August 25, 2012


Do you think the school clique now known as "sosh's" might soon be renamed "Gangnams"?
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:10 PM on August 25, 2012


HuronBob, your comment really set me off, so I apologize for blowing up like that.

The point I wanted to make, that I wish I had controlled my emotions better so I could have made more clearly, is that, for me, the most interesting thing about MetaFilter is seeing how very differently different members have experienced similar situations. I've really learned to not assume my experiences are definitive, and to listen to and respect people's reports of their own lives. Your comment was pretty dismissive of McClain's story, mostly just based on the fact that it wasn't you experience. I was surprised you hadn't drawn the same conclusion after being here for so long.

By the way, there were challenges to your post from rtha, Justinian, and mixing, all making a similar point without all of my bluster. I hope you'll respond to those, and not just ignore them because of my posting style.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:34 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


benito.strauss, thanks for the response.

I think my point was, and I probably didn't make it clearly, is that I believe (and this belief may not be shared by others) that there are some negative school years experiences for most of us, some more than others. There are some people, people of color, people who identify or present off the norm in ways that are not choices, people of an evident ethnic difference for the population, people with disabilities, etc.... for who being bullied, set upon, hurt, and worse is pretty much unavoidable.

I believe, however, that for most of us, there is something that sets us apart, something that is more of a choice than our skin color or sexual orientation, and we take that and either make it a strength and use it well, or we make it invisible, or, worse case, we fly a flag that attracts all the idiots in the world.

My take on his situation is that I believed, because his being as he perceived it in his younger days was similar to who I perceived myself to be and therefore I gave myself some authority (rightfully or not) to hold an opinion, he could have possibly taken steps to mitigate his experience.

That's my opinion, others are welcome to believe that he had no control over what happened to him, I just don't feel, given what I read, that that was the case.

My response was prompted by the fact that I believe we need to be careful not to negate the seriousness of issues that really need to be addressed for people who have absolutely NO choices by lumping in issues such as "I was a nerd, I was a boy scout, I played in the band, I liked computers, I was a skater, and because of that I got picked on" ....you know, those things that are more of a choice.
posted by HuronBob at 2:16 PM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Nerds don't face the same prejudice most queer kids have, yeah, but they do frequently suffer from some similar bullshit, and being able to have places to tell their stories so kids who're in a situation that feels isolating and horrible and inescapable are a Good Thing.

I wish we had a better way of looking at personal stories like these and being able to say, look, that is a situation that was similar to mine in the ways X, Y and Z and use that as a jumping off point for empathy and understanding without thinking that it makes us experts on other people's personal experiences or stories. I think to do this, we can't dismiss other people's experiences: maybe you know what it's like to be a bullied teenager because you were picked on because you were a nerd, and maybe that gives you a bit of understanding of why that sucks, and why it shouldn't happen to anyone, and maybe that will make you a little more likely to help make basic, personal, consciousness-raising and consciousness-changing choices that will help kids who are bullied for their sexual orientation or identity, or the way they look, or their disabilities, or anything else.

I don't know how we can push discussions in that direction-- I think that it's a little harder online, since tone doesn't always come across as well. Because taken too far, it can create false equivalencies and promote the idea that all problems can be helped in the same way, or that impossible burdens can be bootstrapped over. But there's an undertone of hostility in some of the comments here that is this resentful idea rooted in anger from people who had it worse, or had it worse in different ways, and when that (somewhat understandable) debate takes over, it becomes a comparison of misery boners or a game of oppression olympics, which can really shut down conversations.

This hasn't been happening a lot in this thread, except possibly in the jokey way where people take pride in aspects of nerddom that may have caused them problems in the past, which doesn't hurt anything and seems to work well as a social bonding strategy. It's just that the way people talk about their experiences from childhood, particularly in relationship to bullying, ostracism, etc, has been striking me as following this trend for a while, and I was hoping maybe this would prod it in the "understanding and empathy" direction, instead of the competitive one. And maybe someone has suggestions on how to do stuff like this-- take an idea from something like the It Gets Better Project and make it work for other people facing similar issues for different reasons without drawing false equivalencies between, say, nerddom and LGBTQness.
posted by NoraReed at 2:49 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I appreciate the details, HB.

I really do latch on to when you're saying
he could have possibly taken steps to mitigate his experience.
I'm curious as to how hard it was for you to take the steps that you did? You might be short-selling what a natural talent you had for working social situations, or maybe your family members gave you really good patterns. I also think you do not appreciate how lacking in those skills some other people are. Not to say that it's impossible for them to learn them, but they may not come naturally, and they may not have people around them able or willing to help them.

I also don't really get the comparison of nerd-harassment with discrimination based on race or sexual preference. You're saying that one can hide their nerdistry, but not the color of their skin, so this nerd shouldn't complain so much? I'm sure we both think that everyone should be free to express their interests, be they scientific or sexual. But I get a feeling from you of "I had to conceal my nerdy interests, why can't this guy do the same? He should be thankful that at least his differences are ones that can be concealed."
posted by benito.strauss at 3:00 PM on August 25, 2012


false equivalencies between, say, nerddom and LGBTQness.

I still don't get it.I know metafilter likes to make this into some kind of competition but Is it somehow offensive to people that if they were born a certain way maybe I was born a certain way as well? Maybe I could "act less nerdy" but they could act "act less gay".
posted by Ad hominem at 3:11 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


My response was prompted by the fact that I believe we need to be careful not to negate the seriousness of issues that really need to be addressed for people who have absolutely NO choices by lumping in issues such as "I was a nerd, I was a boy scout, I played in the band, I liked computers, I was a skater, and because of that I got picked on" ....you know, those things that are more of a choice.

This is a false dichotomy. I cannot for the life of me fathom why you would believe that showing sympathy for one group of people diminishes the experiences of another group of people. Sympathy is not a scarce resource. Caring about one thing doesn't preclude caring about the other. As you say, some people suffer undeservedly for things that they have literally no choice in. Other people suffer undeservedly for things that are more of a choice. Looking back, most people I know who were beaten up in school probably could have found ways of avoiding it, had they had had the interpersonal skills and a bit of savvy. But they didn't have those skills: a lot of kids don't. So in practice, the outcomes aren't controllable by them, if you take a realistic view of what social capabilities they have.

In any case, regardless of the degree of control some kids theoretically have to prevent themselves from being victimised, they're still getting bullied, and they still don't deserve it. From a policy point of view, stopping bullying in general is a good thing for kids regardless of why they're being bullied. Policies that help those kids being bullied because they are gay are also likely to have positive effects for kids who are being bullied because they like maths. As noted earlier in the thread, a rising tide of equality can carry all boats. And in any case, caring is not like money. There's no opportunity cost involved in showing sympathy for people who have had to go through traumatic experiences. This is not a zero-sum game.

(So much for my plan to walk away from this thread. Oh well.)
posted by mixing at 3:11 PM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


My High School in Pittsburgh had hundreds in the graduating class, and the math, physics and chemistry teachers were all PhDs. Someone once stole a document from the guidance counselor's office that listed all of the IQs. There were four topped out at 150, including two of my closest friends. I was so lucky to go to that school.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:15 PM on August 25, 2012


Really quick, I think reactively acting extra weird on purpose can be a coping mechanism, a way of exerting some kind of control over your social interactions. It's obviously imperfect and has to be unlearned at some point, but given a really stressful environment with such limited options I think it's understandable. (After all, for "normal" socialization to work the way it's supposed to, you have to be in an environment where at least some of your peers don't want nothing to do with you -- and as several people have attested, especially in a small school that's by no means a given.)

About the "choice" thing, I worry it's a little bit of a red herring in this case. I want to live in a world where if, for example, a little boy wants to play fashion designer instead of baseball at recess, he can do so without being tormented and ridiculed, regardless of his motivations for doing so.
posted by en forme de poire at 4:51 PM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm a little disturbed by the perception among some that if a nerdy kid can change how they act to avoid the bullying, then that bullying is not so problematic. (Or, worse, that by then failing to change, they are bringing it on themselves).

I mean, of course if part of the reason they're getting bullied is because of genuinely anti-social behaviour, like acting "better" than other people, that's a good thing for them to try to change. But in my experience (also in a small rural high school) a lot of the behaviour kids got tormented for was just being different. Not knowing what to say to people. Not finding the same things funny. Not having the same interests. Standing out because they genuinely seemed to like learning.

And it is very much a problem when a kid is bullied for things like that, whether they could learn adaptive tricks to hide it or not.

Would we think it was okay to bully a gay boy for wearing pink or being interested in theatre, since in theory he could just hide those interests and wear appropriately "manly" clothing? No, we'd think part of the problem was that he had to hide himself to avoid bullying, that he was receiving the message that who he was was not okay. For me and the people I know who were bullied for being nerds, the single most difficult part to psychologically overcome was that message, which we all internalised to one degree or another.
posted by forza at 6:32 PM on August 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


I mean, of course if part of the reason they're getting bullied is because of genuinely anti-social behaviour, like acting "better" than other people, that's a good thing for them to try to change. But in my experience (also in a small rural high school) a lot of the behaviour kids got tormented for was just being different. Not knowing what to say to people. Not finding the same things funny. Not having the same interests. Standing out because they genuinely seemed to like learning.

I think that's a distinction that people were trying to grapple with in the recent discussion of creepsters in nerd spaces, for example -- when is someone just being socially awkward, and when are they behaving in a way that is actually inappropriate?

Just speaking personally, at 14 I was a writhing bundle of inappropriateness. In my own case (and yet again emphasizing that I have no idea to what extent I was typical) some part of the bullying was a reflection of my insistence on continuing stigmatized behaviors including creepy ones. (Again -- that's not even one millionth of a justification for bullying. Bullying shouldn't exist, period.)
posted by Forktine at 6:44 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, it is hard to know how much and to what extent this sort of thing is caused by a kid just lacking in social skills and being socially inappropriate. (Though, as you and others are careful to point out, it still doesn't mean bullying isn't traumatic or is justified in those situations).

But I think there's also a bit of a cultural divide underpinning this conversation. My small, rural, red-state, very religious town was an order of magnitude more viscerally anti-intellectual than anywhere I've ever been since (which includes small and large cities on both coasts and in the middle of the country, as well as in other countries). Really just far more anti-intellectual and far more conformist, with far fewer people who stand out as different in any way. In a school like that, it really is sufficient to just be smart, have different interests, be excited by learning, and unable or unwilling to hide it: that alone will get you bullied. Not sure if Dr McClain comes from such a school, but many people do.
posted by forza at 8:06 PM on August 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


Maybe this is just my background and other people won't be able to relate to this, but in my high school 'popular' didn't mean 'well-liked by many people and easy to get on with'. It was more shorthand for 'top of the pecking order, someone lots of people are frightened of, people with friends who could hospitalise you if you don't show "respect"'.

The most 'popular' boy at my place was someone who'd grown to six foot by the age of 13, was physically threatening to teachers, in a gang and followed by police for a period (I know he went to prison for a bit after school, I don't know if he's still alive now). The most 'popular' girl was a conventionally attractive white, thin, blonde haired person who liked throwing pennies at younger children as a shorthand to calling them homeless. Both these people had groups of attractive/unattractive/thin/big/sociable/unsociable people around them. Many of these people were semi-violent and banded together tightly against other students, meaning if one called you an ugly slag and you answered back, you had at minimum seven other people who would potentially hurt you on the bus/in the toilets/behind the library/between classes.

Looking back on this, it seems like who was in the 'in' group and who was in the 'out' group was like, 80% arbitrary. It's just some kids liked acting out whatever was bothering them through hurting and domineering others, and if they singled you out, that was just pure bad luck. I never got bullied really, just a few names here and there over the years, but two of my friends got it really bad. They were no more unattractive or badly socialised than any of the 'popular' group. I also think, in retrospect, the thing the popular people liked very much was causing the people they bullied to ask themselves 'why me?' and what they could be doing to avoid it, why they were so different from the other people who didn't get any trouble.

The answer is they weren't. There was nothing they could do to change their dress, speech, walk etc that would make it OK. They'd just been singled out to be driven crazy with feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt because the popular people decided it. They were really just there to make the others feel powerful and better than.

It didn't help that the teachers were pretty much complicit, from what I saw, and that there was practically no bullying policy at the time. And I think that's also one of the biggest problems - having a school where the teachers say (this was my form teacher, almost verbatim), 'You have to let the kids sort the pecking order out themselves, you can't get involved. What, I can't MAKE them get along with each other. (Shrug)'

Our school was sued for this by a bullied child a few years after I left.
posted by everydayanewday at 10:37 PM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I grew up with a similar experience to forza, which is to say, as soon as it was clear I preferred reading over kickball, I was "othered."

I found out as a high school senior that the "most popular" girl when I came into my tiny new school in the 4th grade, also decided that I was there to be the "new smart and pretty girl" and set out to ensure that no one liked me.

I don't know if it's weirder that she did that, or that she remembered doing that, or that she thought she should tell me 10 years after the fact? Very strange.

Regardless, I'd already been picked on before that for being small, and my dad had taught me how to punch properly at 5 years old. So I wasn't too concerned with fist fights, other than I understood avoiding fighting was more to my advantage than getting INTO a fight. So instead, I used my over developed vocabulary and developed a sharp tongue and a sailor's repertoire, and that served me well in the department of people being willing to leave me alone.

Maybe I should feel badly about my return fire, but I don't. I got out of that place and I've literally never looked back.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:03 AM on August 26, 2012


You are not a nerd. You're a person with an early adopter email address.
posted by srboisvert at 9:09 AM on August 26, 2012


.... and my dad had taught me how to punch properly at 5 years old.

Just to dramatize how different the resources available to different people are: When I came home from junior high after being punched in gym class, my parents spent 5-10 minutes arguing with each other over whether or not it was okay to get into a fight, if someone else starts it. No conclusions were reached, and no punching instructions were provided.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:42 AM on August 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Back in the late 70s I was in an experimental program in which they rounded some of the "talented and gifted" kids from around the district and bussed us to a school in San Diego's south bay. This was elementary-4th through 6th grade. The class was awesome, was a total brain trust and was amazing. It quickly became apparent though, that we weren't just there for our abilities. Many of us were there because we were socially inept, awkward or generally strange and difficult to deal with in a traditional setting.

One guy who eventually became one of my best friends could perform advanced calculus in the 4th grade (He's the guy who turned me onto DEVO and thus alternative music.) He was a true savant. He was literally a spaz though, too. If he ever got stuck while solving a problem he would freak out to the point of having seizures. I'm not kidding at all and I still love and admire that guy.

Our classroom environment was pretty good, buncha nerds herded together, but our location was horrible. The school we were bussed to was in the heart of a lower socio-economic and mostly Latino neighborhood. The locals really hated us. Any time we were exposed, during recess or running to and from the bus, was a threat of being smashed in the face, pushed in the mud, tripped, called retarded etc. Most of the kids developed clubs to avoid recess entirely. D&D club, drama club, oceanography club...I was a spaz myself though and couldn't sit still long enough for those kinds of things. I had to get out in the sun during recess.

I fit in pretty well with the soccer crowd, I could play pretty well, but being an outnumbered "tard" I still was beaten up pretty regularly. On the few occasions that I tried to play basket ball or softball, the result usually looked like a gang initiation with five or more kids kicking the shit out of me while I was on the ground. Typically, if anyone got in trouble, it was me. For instigating trouble. That's when I learned to distrust adults and authority.

A lifetime away from that, I'm now a Division Head in charge of an incredibly diverse group of people. It's multi-racial and sexually diverse. That is to say we have gays and lesbians too. It IS difficult to keep everyone on task and united in our common mission, but as time goes on and as we acclimate to each other, the easier it is.

Recently I got a complaint about one of my employees being "too gay". After explaining that we are in an experiment to prove that we can ALL do great work together and with the complainer hemming and hawing, I said;

"If you were stranded in the desert and about to die, would you turn away help from another human being because they were gay, black, asian or white? Fuck no you wouldn't and that's where we are here. You, WE, need each other so work it out!"

Anyway, it pains me terribly that bullying is not a major concern in education. Every time I hear about bullying I think that there's a man or woman out there who could have cured cancer or something but were thwarted because their brilliance, ability, their self esteem was beaten out of them.

It doesn't matter what one's nationality is, what they look like, what their interests are, how skinny or socially inept they may seem to be...they, WE all deserve an equal shot.
posted by snsranch at 2:57 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


in my high school 'popular' didn't mean 'well-liked by many people and easy to get on with'. It was more shorthand for 'top of the pecking order, someone lots of people are frightened of

The one thing I have tried to explain to teenagers wondering what will change when they get to college is: the "social hierarchy" vanishes. If someone is called "popular," it's because they've gotten everyone to like them. The Plastics from Mean Girls still live, but they're off terrorizing pledges in their sorority, and the rest of the university doesn't know who they are and doesn't care. Social drama happens within individual social groups.

The locals really hated us [gifted and talented program kids]. Any time we were exposed, during recess or running to and from the bus, was a threat of being smashed in the face, pushed in the mud, tripped, called retarded etc.

Anyone who wants to understand the minds of kids when they're using schoolyard slurs is going to have to come to grip with why braniacs are also called retards. It's not sarcasm. This is also why I get very tired of debates about the exact meaning of "geek" vs. "nerd" vs. "dork." Those words all mean the same thing, but what that is cannot be understood unless you can see the social world like a 9 year old.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 4:28 AM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


On the kindergarten-age bullying thing: my kids are lucky, because my kids are boy-girl twins and can look out for each other/present a united front against unpleasantness, and because they have a father who can teach them how to cope (and reassure them that the problem with bullies is the bullies' behaviors), and a mother who is willing to contact the parent of a bully to say "hey, you need to know your kid is doing this" (and willing to make active changes to schooling and other group activities to ensure bullies are either correcting their behavior or being kept away from our kids.)

Fundamentally at core, bullying is a nurture issue rather than a nature one; my daughter looks like I did and acts like I did, but she handles bullying in a way that befriends or neutralizes the bullies, whereas I got beat up a lot (until I grew taller than my attackers) -- and it comes down to having a support system, which she has and I didn't, and one that's willing to address the issue at its core (the bully's behavior) rather than indirectly (making it all about the kid being bullied.)

Granted, that can't solve every problem -- there's one kid we have a great relationship with, and his with his parents as well, but he's adopted from a very bad situation and is still struggling to control his physical anger -- but even then, my kids say things like "[the bully] is still using really bad behavior, so we're still staying away from him" and "[the bully] got in trouble again today, because he was doing [bad behavior] and we both went and told the teacher." They have a modicum of control via support from teachers and family. As someone who didn't have that, my heart goes out to every kid who doesn't have it (and who doesn't eventually outgrow their assailants or otherwise come to have power over them.)
posted by davejay at 11:28 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


oh, and it is a nurture issue from the bully's side too, obviously; didn't want to make it sound like bullying is caused entirely by the victim's lack of a support system. I do, however, think that the victim not getting support certainly enables the initial bullying to spiral out of control, because kids keep on doing things if there are no consequences, so a bully will keep escalating bullying if nobody steps in to stop it.
posted by davejay at 11:35 AM on August 28, 2012


It didn't help that the teachers were pretty much complicit, from what I saw, and that there was practically no bullying policy at the time. And I think that's also one of the biggest problems - having a school where the teachers say (this was my form teacher, almost verbatim), 'You have to let the kids sort the pecking order out themselves, you can't get involved. What, I can't MAKE them get along with each other. (Shrug)'

Yeah, ultimately this is a huge problem. Take a toddler, tell that toddler they can't have a cookie, and watch them try to get the cookie by hook or by crook, through actions and words and tears and screams and cleverness and humor and...you get the idea. If they ultimately can't get the cookie, they give up.

Let them have the cookie, though, and whatever strategy got it for them -- hook, crook, actions, words, tears, screams, cleverness, humor, whatever -- and plan on seeing that strategy over and over again, and not just for cookies. Watch it get leveraged for everything, and watch them get really aggressive if you try to retroactively set the boundary that their previously successful strategy will no longer work.

Some teachers are fantastic, some are not -- just as in any industry -- and those teachers who band together to phone it in and not act as authority figures are just letting the toddlers have the cookies over and over again, and on some level they probably think that they're not being paid enough/the peer pressure from other teachers to ignore problems is too great/it is just too much effort to put the cookies back in the cookie jar. Couple that with some parents who fight back when teachers try to stop their children's bullying, and I can almost sympathize. Almost.

The solution really is a strict no bullying policy, enforced from day one with clear repercussions for offenses, united support for victims, and an approach that stops bullying without throwing away the kid who did the bullying. No cookies for anyone, ever, except for good behavior, and turn it into an issue of "problem kids that need to be guided to proper social behavior" rather than "bullies vs victims is just the way kids are*."

*as a parent, if I just let my kids behave as they wanted to and claimed they were just doing what kids do, my son would be beating other kids up today on his first day of second grade, rather than learning his behavior was inappropriate when he started hitting kids in pre-school.
posted by davejay at 11:51 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, and united support for teachers who enforce the no bullying policies; you can't throw the teachers under the bus and expect them to support the policies.
posted by davejay at 11:53 AM on August 28, 2012


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