Growing up as a nerd has never been particularly easy for anyone, but it was particularly difficult for me, as a scrawny little nerdchilde in a small east Texas town where the only good game is a football game, and the only good book is, well, the Good Book. God, guns, football and the baby Jesus. That’s Texas, if you add some cowboy boots and stupid hats.
But what made my experience so awful, or in any way different than that of any nerd growing up anywhere? Well, I did it in the ’80s, for a start. Which was a dark time for nerds living in the Bible Belt.
You can’t do anything in my town without someone invoking the Holy Spirit in some capacity. Whether it’s an opening prayer that repeats the term “Father God” every other word for inexplicable reasons, as if the omnipotent creator of the universe is going to suddenly forget who you’re talking to if you don’t say his name every few seconds to keep his attention, or maybe a closing prayer, or a mid-whatever prayer, or perhaps just a cautionary explanation from one of your teachers about how Science is how the devil gets inside you and you’re going to hell for believing in carbon dating (yes, that actually happened to me). If you’re doing anything in this town, you ain’t doin’ it without Jesus, boy.
My Other Questionable Decisions
Which made liking fantasy and role-playing games during the height of the ’80s Satanic Panic exceptionally fun.
Playing a computer RPG like Ultima would lead me down a dark path to ritualistic animal sacrifice and drinking blood from the still-beating hearts of virgins if someone didn’t set me straight. And don’t even think about D&D, because that combined devil magic with things like math and rolling dice, which was how the demons of Gambling and Reason grabbed hold of the impressionable youth.
If you were a kid growing up in 1980s Texas and you liked that sort of thing, you had to keep it on the down low. Underground. Keep it secret, sort of thing. Keep it safe.
Which makes me think that growing up nerdy in the South was probably a lot like growing up gay in the anywhere. You had to live a lie not only to fit in, but just to avoid getting your ass kicked every other day on the playground.
As for what specific horrors growing up during the ’80s as a nerdy kid in the South who was also gay might’ve entailed, it’s really too disturbing to think about. I’m not even making a joke. Most of them probably didn’t make it out alive, either due to tragic suicides or…well, it’s the Deep South. Draw your own conclusions.
Even today, as an adult still living in the same timewarp city, people routinely try to make me feel bad about being a nerd. For instance, I made myself a d20 keychain when I was making polyhedral die necklaces for my kid’s birthday party. I think it’s pretty nifty, but a hyper-local micro-celebrity happened to catch a glimpse of it in a picture I posted on Facebook, then thought he was being super witty by making a little quip about how of course I would have a “D&D dice” keychain. Because being a middle-aged dude with a raging fanboy hard-on for NASCAR is totally normal around these parts, but rolling dice outside of a casino is just plain unnatural.
My stepson’s dad also loves to nerd-pick, which is always fun. He’ll make little jibes at me from time to time that I just ignore, but I know he pokes a few of them at Trey, too. He tells me about them, and it breaks my heart. There’s nothing I can do about it, and I certainly have no right to tell his biological father how to raise his own child during his visitation periods, but that doesn’t make the vicarious stings any less sharp.
I’ve learned to mostly ignore the jibes – and they don’t hurt me anymore, like they did when I was younger – but they’re still annoying. And omnipresent. Like gnats at a picnic.
Getting back to the ’80s, I knew a few other nerds growing up. We were friends and all liked some different nerdy thing, but what we all had in common was The Lie. We all wore masks.
We’d blend in with the “normal” kids as best we could, pretending to give a shit about sports or whatever, or feigning interest in the fad of the day. It was just easier than dealing with the taunts and the bullies, so that’s what we did for the English, which is totally what I would’ve called normal people if I’d known anything about the Amish back before Witness came out.
But for most of my friends – and, I think, most nerds everywhere – that mask of normalcy slowly became permanent. Pretend to be something long enough, and I guess you just eventually forget what you were hiding behind it. I believe this is commonly referred to as Growing Up. And it sucks.
We all have to do it, of course. Grow up. But I don’t think that has to automatically mean we just stop loving everything we ever enjoyed as children, just so we can convince ourselves that we’ve matured. Or worse, just so we can convince everyone else that we’re adults who like adult things because we’re adults. Or something.
As a grown up who never grew up, I’d love to take Trey away from this town. This state. This entire region. I want to – and I could – but I still think it’s important that he have a relationship with his father, despite our differences. Moving across the country would make that more difficult, and it’s not something I’m eager to do. If I find the right job opportunity and have to relocate for that reason, it’s one thing. But moving just because I’d like someplace else better has never entered my thought process.
Well, not since I’ve known Brittany and Trey (wife and stepson, for those not paying attention), anyway. Before I met them, I could have – and probably should have – left. Many times. My level of personal fulfillment would probably be a lot higher today had I done so back then, but if I was out living the dream in some distant state seven years ago, I never would’ve met MY ENTIRE REASON FOR LIVING. So I’m fine with how things turned out.
But I still admire the nerds who not only made it out, but who owned their nerdhood with such ferocity that they not only made careers out of it, but helped burn down the forest of intolerance as they blazed their trails across the pop culture landscape.
Felicia Day. Felicia’s name gets its own sentence, because sweet, merciful Zeus, she’s amazing. So amazing that, when I realized she wasn’t originally on this list when I published it, I came back just to add her. AND I’m putting her at the top, before even Lord British, because she’s just that awesome. I just finished reading the Ultima chapter in her book, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), and I had to put it down, jump over to this post, and pencil her in. It’s like she’s a version of me, but, you know, a successful one. She grew up in the Deep South, just like me. She didn’t have anyone to play D&D with, just like me (although I’m not sure if she used to read the sourcebooks for fun and then had to roleplay her own imaginary friends just so she could have someone to play the roleplaying game with, though. Like me. Sad, lonely little me.) She also faced the same religious zealotry and outsider issues I’ve just told you I went through. And that my own kid will have to face soon, if we don’t get out of Texas before it’s too late. In short, because these are supposed to be quick little paragraphs about my nerd heroes, Felicia is the biggest nerd you will ever find – and she’s also one of the sweetest, most driven people I’ve ever not met. I want her to go on to become a major media mogul so she can 1) Enjoy her well-earned success as the benevolent ruler over her own little Britannia, and 2) Hire me for something. Anything. I don’t care.
Richard Garriott is, was, and always will be an enormous nerd. He collects automatons and has an actual dungeon in his house, for pete’s sake. He went to computer camp in high school. He played D&D so openly that more people know him today by his alter-ego, Lord British, than they do by his actual name. Which he changed to Richard Garriott de Cayeux when he got married, by the way. Because he just doesn’t give a shit what you think about the patriarchy, thankyouverymuch. He took his nerdy passions and turned them into computer games and dollar signs. Then he decided to be an astronaut, because why the hell not? And he did it. Went to space. Got the t-shirt. Meanwhile, the proverbial high school bully has probably been off selling cars out by the interstate for the past few decades. Suck it, haters.
Adam Savage is another gigantic nerd. He took his love of model building and special effects and turned them into a career building models for special effects. And then blowing them up. And then blowing everything up on Mythbusters. Now he builds elaborate cosplays and strolls the floor of Comicon every year dressed as everything from a Ringwraith to an unfortunate member of the Nostromo’s crew from Alien. He builds pretend ray guns for fun, then constructs elaborately themed cases to house them in. He hangs out with actors and puts together model kits from the shows they’ve been on. He giggles like an overexcited child at the slightest tingle of his nerd hypothalamus. And he’s awesome.
Jane Espenson was such a nerd growing up that she tried to write a M*A*S*H* episode when she was in junior high. Then, she went to college and majored in computer science – at a time when the male-to-female ratio in that track was even more alarmingly one-sided than it is today – and linguistics. Because every girl knows the key to popularity is punch cards and diphthongs. She eventually went on to write spec scripts for Star Trek – the cultural touchstone of nerdism – and, you know what else? She helped make EVERYTHING YOU LIKE TODAY. Her work on series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica made serial television what it is today. Without shows like Buffy or BSG proving that serial storytelling was not only possible but preferable to episodic one-shots, we wouldn’t have Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, or any other of a whole great, big list of amazing television. She’s amazing.
Wil Wheaton was freaking Wesley Crusher on Star Trek. You just don’t get any nerdier than that. The character was (unfairly, in my opinion) universally loathed, and it didn’t take long for Crusher Hating to become Wheaton Hating, because some people just can’t tell the difference between actors and characters or whatever. After his run on Trek, Wil kind of slipped out of the spotlight. But you know what he did? He went and started working with a company called New Tek on something called the Video Toaster, which you’ve probably never heard of. But you’ve seen what it led to, which is EVERYTHING YOU LIKE TODAY. Non-linear editing, digital compositing, CGI – everything that modern movies and TV is built on was pioneered by the Video Toaster. It was to video what the Macintosh was to desktop publishing. It was that important. Then, after he got done doing that, he decided to screw everything and write some books where he not only didn’t hide from his nerdy tendencies, but celebrated them. And they were a huge success. Now, he’s basically the King of the Nerds, which was probably some popular kid’s idea of a hilarious insult back in the ’80s, but is one of the coolest things anyone could be today. He’s also a super nice guy.
I sometimes wish I could’ve found a way to transition my nerdiness into a career, but I fear that time has long since passed me by. Sure, I’d go help Adam blow things up if he asked. I’d also write some dialog for Jane or a bit of lore for Richard, if they offered. And I wouldn’t hesitate to go play a round of Munchkin with Wil over on TableTop if I got an invite, but none of these things are ever likely to happen. I guess I could sit around, being jealous of their successes and shouting angry things at them – which, judging by their mentions on Twitter, is a frighteningly popular sport – but I’d rather just admire them for what they’ve accomplished that I never could.
Because, while growing up as a nerd has never been particularly easy for anyone, nerds like Richard, Jane, Adam and Wil have made it a whole lot easier than it used to be. Even in the small, timewarp towns of east Texas.
Of course, I’ll continue having to endure the flaccid taunts of impotent, middle-aged bullies who still think the world works like their junior high locker rooms did, but that’s only because they’re too old to know any better. To know that the world has changed.
But at least my kid won’t have to endure the same attacks from his peers, because they’ve all grown up in a world where being a nerd isn’t an insult anymore. Where being smart doesn’t make you weird, where reading books isn’t strange, and playing games doesn’t make you a loser.
Maybe one day, after Trey is old enough to voice his feelings in any legal sense, he’ll be okay with moving, and I’ll take that big first step out into the wider world to see if I can be a nerd success, too. In the meantime, I’ll just keep freelancing and writing things here until that time comes. After all, George R.R. Martin started writing in the ’70s, but didn’t publish A Game of Thrones until he was almost 50. And look how that’s turned out for him.
It’s never too late.
© 2015 – 2016, Kristian Bland. All rights reserved.