Letters

Responding to Ian R. Williams' "Twilight of the Dork?" readers say: The fires of dork creativity will never be quenched!


Salon Staff
November 3, 2003 11:30PM (UTC)

[Read the story.]

Geeky kids do not have an easier time in school these days. While fans of Harry Potter may be getting a break, most kids who step out from the herd still have to put up with the same kind of crap that I did as a child back in the '70s. I was a geeky, nonconformist misfit as a kid and my oldest son is following in his mom's footsteps. He's a bright and energetic but socially awkward fourth grader who is fascinated by military history and games (especially war games, strategy games, and chess). He plays several sports but is not a star in any of them. And he is running the same gauntlet of his peers that I did at his age, when I was a socially awkward fourth grader who also was interested in things nobody else in my school cared about.

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While my son thankfully hasn't yet encountered the physical bullying that I did, he faces the same kind of teasing and isolation for not being in step with his fellow fourth graders. They are spoiling his delight in school and sports and making him doubt his worth as a person. I am afraid things will only get worse when he hits middle school, the years when conformity is prized above all else.

It is extremely painful to watch this happen to him. Although I often talk with him about his experiences and can sometimes suggest strategies for dealing with teasing, I feel essentially powerless to help him.

Comparing notes with other parents, I've discovered that my son's experience is not unique. Whether you're going to a small private or religious school or a large public school, if you're different, you're still dead. I suppose my son is building up a store of childhood anguish to power his creative adulthood. (I often remind him that he will only be in school for 12 years, but he will be himself for his entire life.) Perhaps that which does not kill him will make him stronger. But if geek chic truly trickles down to his elementary school, I'll be the first to cheer. It will make his life a lot easier.

-- Nancy Ott

I was a true geek in middle and high school. I was one of the first people in my grade to discover the Ramones at 13, the same year I discovered Rush. In high school, I was one of the few kids in the theatre club that actually wanted to do it for life. I was into writing poetry, foreign and indie film and Japanese animation. I collected Spiderman comics. I wasn't really picked on that much and but I never really had plans for Saturday night either.

The 13-year-old girls that Ian Williams mentions in his article are not really geeks. They are geek-lite, poser-geeks. True geeks are not listening to Avril Lavigne, Kelly Osbourne and Pink. If they listen to modern music they have found indie bands like Belle and Sebastian and the Magnetic Fields. Or they listen to rock music from bands that haven't recorded for a long time that most kids would consider to be "moldy oldies." And if they are really geeky as in "Revenge of the Nerds" geeky then they probably listen to more classical than rock.

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I am amused that many celebrities and almost everyone else is trying to use geek as a badge of honor. But when a word like geek becomes a badge of honor, then most people using it aren't really geeks.

-- Dale Ratner

I don't even know where to start taking Mr. Williams' article to task. First, my credentials: I am a certifiable computer geek, just recently out of my teen years; I had a horrible time until high school, and even then there was certainly never anyone who would use the word "cool" to describe me. I think the most important thing that Mr. Williams is missing is that, as cool as it is for young adults to talk about being dorks as kids, and as hip as Peter Parker and Avril Lavigne are, it never has been nor will it ever be cool to be a misfit while you're still a teenager.

The cool kids will look at Neo and think "Whoa! He kicks some ass." However, they are not going to turn around and make the connection between the trench-coat-clad chisel-featured Keanu and the trench-coat-clad pudgy dork teaching himself to program in the school's lab. Dorks do not know kung fu. That kid will come out of college, sans trench coat and with a well-paid tech job, and brag about how geeky he was in high school. But don't ask him about the "peace and harmony" that his geekiness brought him.

-- Evan Moses

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The true genius of the dork comes from a reassessment of the value function. A dork, early on, decides that different things are important (having failed in, or just lacking the tools in other areas.) The creativity and drive come from this reevaluation of priority, not anger and resentment. The dork lives not in the world of the jock (sports), but in his own world of attainable gratification (sex, computers, OK, well, masturbation anyway.) It almost seems as though the author is describing dorkdom as seen from the outside. The really creative dorks long ago rejected the notion that they should be resentful. They create, not in spite of, but regardless of everyone else.

-- Michael Tesch

I am a nerd. I am also a dork and a geek. I think of these as three separate but related identities and have spent way too much of my free time developing discrete definitions of the three.

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Nerds are defined by what they know. We tend to stick to societally acceptable topics, but dive in much deeper or cover a wider variety of subjects than most. We are the grad students of the world, the academics, researchers and general know-it-alls.

Dorks are defined by what they like. Similar to the nerd, we dive in much deeper than the average person, but the topics we pursue tend to be much more nontraditional. We learn to speak Klingon or Elvish or know the plot lines, writers, and artists of all the major comic books and most of the minor ones.

Geeks are defined by what they can do. We may not know as much as the nerd on any given topic, but we can do more with what we know. We can hook up a home theater, fix a computer, or super-charge a lawnmower. We are the tinkerers, programmers, and garage inventors.

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Some broad examples of my taxonomy: Nerds get A's in AP classes. Dorks play D&D. Geeks set up LANs.

All of our incarnations have spent more time learning about stuff than we have interacting with other people, hence our reputation for social awkwardness. We are handy, interesting, and often downright annoying to have around when our specialty areas come up, but are otherwise generally avoided.

I'm a nerd/dork/geek, but that's not the entirety of my identity. I like myself and my life, and against all odds, I've managed to find a life partner who feels the same. Of course, she's a bit nerdy/dorky/geeky herself, but aren't we all?

-- Matthew Burack

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I'm speaking as a 33-year-old dork veteran here, not a quasi-hip "dork"; and I say, don't worry about the creative dorks of the world disappearing. The fact is, it's not really cool to be a dork. It's just cool to look like a Tommy Hilfiger model and wear dorky glasses. Big difference.

Real dorks still don't get laid. Cheerleaders do not attend prom with the best computer science student in school; they just use them for homework help; and that alone will guarantee the dork fire of creativity for generations to come.

-- William Workman

I would like to assuage Mr. Williams's fear that dorks will ever lose their chance to cultivate their anger and sense of alienation. First, just because the popular media give dorks a more positive spin does not mean that actual dorks are treated better more often by actual non-dorks. Jack Black on screen is funny; the sophomore in high school who acts like Jack Black in the hallway is probably less so. It may even be that dorks are more ridiculed by non-dorks because the greater attention paid to dorks has made them easier to identify in public. Who knows?

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Second, as one who continues to embrace his nerdliness in all its glory in adulthood, I can assure you that as accepted as I may be, there are still things I know I cannot say when I am in mixed (i.e. nerd and non-nerd) company. My acceptance is conditioned on the premise that I do not tell jokes that have "asymptote" in the punch line. Nor can I apply economic principles to the distribution of styles of pants in the room. I can reveal my ability to read and even speak Old English only if the conversation renders it absolutely necessary -- say, a heated discussion of Christian allusions in "Beowulf" (you can imagine how often this comes up).

When my enthusiasm causes me to break one of these rules, to avoid uncomfortable shifts and sighs, I must follow my nerdy comment with a self-deprecating joke explaining that I am aware of how nerdy I am, and how I am a hopeless case. This produces the laughs, or at least defuses the conversation bomb I have just thrown, and general talk continues apace. Other nerds, I am sure, will recognize me as one of their own when I reveal that this strategy was developed over a period of years. It needed to be tested, analyzed, re-analyzed, tweaked. My "socialization program," as I like to call it, is still very much a work in progress -- though I hold out the hope that I can just cut a path to "highly eccentric" and hold out until old age, when my behavior can be read and excused as borderline senility. Those will be sweet years.

My point? Nerds will never be fully integrated into society simply because it cannot be: By nature and definition, we care too much about things that other people could not care less about. This will always create a rift, and it is a rift that non-nerds will not know how to cross. A century from now when statues of famous nerds dot public squares around the world, nerds who care to do so will still have to spend a couple of years building a bridge over Dork Canyon if they want to talk to non-nerds, even for so much as a cup of coffee. Or, they can work up the Big Nerd Mad that their isolation affords them. Or, they can embrace their own eggish heads and ascend to a nirvana only nerds can know. Or they can do all three, and more. So fear not, Mr. Williams: you are, are not, and always will be neither and both, alone, together, and alone.

-- Brian Slattery

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Salon Staff

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