Rich Wilhelm

Nerdism

In 1980s, high school, nerdism, nerds on February 14, 2016 at 1:12 pm

 

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I woke up thinking about nerds on this very cold Valentine’s Day in Pennsylvania. This has nothing to do with my romantic life per se. I just woke up thinking about nerds.

It all started late one evening last week. I caught the end of the 1984 movie, Revenge of the Nerds. I first saw this cinematic masterwork in a theater, with a couple of my nerdish friends, within a week or so of its original release. Hell, we may have seen it opening night.

I suppose we thought that the [SPOILER ALERT!] ultimate triumph of the goodhearted nerds over the mindless, evil, social-climbing prep jocks was a validation of our nerdish existence, and maybe we were right about that. In many ways though, Revenge of the Nerds is not an easy movie to watch in 2016. It is awash in ethnic, racial and sexual stereotypes. Not only that, the scene in which the main nerd uses the mask he is wearing to trick the main jock’s girlfriend to have sex with him in a moon bounce is seriously uncool, even if it all works out OK in the end.

Of course, all of that is looking at a 1984 movie through the lens of 2016 sensibilities and I am not really interested in a debate about whether current standards should be applied to any sort of art (including Revenge of the Nerds) from the past. Besides, I betcha the whole plot and cast of characters from the movie was stolen from Shakespeare anyway.

The movie did get me thinking about my high school friends–who shall remain nameless here, but should they happen to stumble upon this, they know who they are. We clearly were living on the fringes of high school society, or so we thought. This, despite the fact that we were all Caucasian, straight (as far as I knew) males. But this is not really surprising: while nerds comprise all races, ethnicities and orientations today, a certain strain of straight while males were clearly the nerdiest of the nerds in early 1980s teen culture, despite the more diverse (but stereotyped) cast in Revenge of the Nerds.

I realize that I am basing this on my very limited experience. Clearly there were black nerds, Asian nerds, girl nerds, gay nerds and all other manner of nerds populating high schools in 1982. It’s just that I knew what I knew at the time and, in retrospect, what I knew was pretty damned limited.

As for my friends and me: we played Risk while listening to Rush. The epic Moving Pictures and its new wave-influenced follow-up Signals were the big Rush studio albums of my high school days, but it was the live album, Exit…Stage Left, that seemed to be the most common Risk soundtrack. Because it rocked.

Of course, there was that sleep-over that happened not long after one of my nerd friends had fallen in love. He thus made us listen to the three hit songs–“Lost in Love,” “All Out of Love,” and “Every Woman In the World”–from Air Supply’s first big album over and over again. But he wouldn’t listen to the rest of the album, which is why I am still not conversant on what the best Air Supply deep album tracks are.

We played Dungeons and Dragons as well, or at least some of us did. There was another fantasy game that took hold of as well. I think it might have been called Ysgarth, or something like that, and it was one step beyond D&D.

I was never fully enmeshed in the fantasy game scene–even as a teenager, I found actual reality surreal enough, thank you very much–but I was there sometimes when the games were being played. I was not a huge Rush fan–the new waver in my kept the prog rocker in me at bay–but I was there when we were listening to the Rush records.

But it wasn’t as if I was simply a nerd-by-association. I could recite the names of all the U.S. presidents by the time I was seven years old. The graveyard obsession that has ultimately led me to become a cemetery tour guide followed shortly thereafter.

So yes, I was a nerd. Or a geek, or a dork. I know there are subtle differences among those three words, but it’s all just semantics. My friends were nerds too, though looking back, we each approached nerdism in our own specific way. Just like every single kid, before and since, has approached the development of their own personalities in the sometimes harsh world of high school society. My friends and I were fortunate in that we were able to work through the nerdishness–which, let’s face it, is really just code for “being true to oneself”–and emerge unscathed. Sadly, we all know that is not always the case, which is perhaps a topic for another time.

 

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Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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