In middle school, recess was my favorite part of the day. But not for the same reasons as other fifth and sixth graders—I didn’t like playing soccer, or swinging on the swing sets, or even gossiping. No, the main reason I loved recess was that I loved to read. Every day after fifth period, I would sit on a bench by myself and get lost in a great book. For those glorious 20 minutes, I didn’t mind that I didn’t have many friends—I was busy boarding the Hogwarts Express with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, or fighting mythical Greek beasts with Percy Jackson.
Until one day, this all changed. Recess began normally: I seated myself in the gazebo, opened my book, and began to read. Then I heard it: the word that seemed to slap me in the face.
I was hurt. I knew that meant I was being separated from the rest of my peers, put in my own category. I was given a mean-spirited label, just because I was doing something I loved.
Unfortunately, society has developed a serious, anti-nerd culture. By perpetuating this nerdy archetype—glasses, braces, loves math, computers, science fiction, Lord of the Rings—we have silenced an entire subset of intelligent kids who have so much to offer. And this label is far from harmless. Ask any middle-school-age kid how people treat nerds, and they’ll tell you that nerds are ostracized, the bottom of the pecking order. We praise athletes, commend artists, and applaud musicians—where’s the love for nerds?
Usually, the answer to this question is, after puberty. Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, recalled being bullied for being a nerd. Walter Isaacson writes in his biography of Jobs, “He was often bullied, and in the middle of seventh grade he gave his parents an ultimatum. ‘I insisted they put me in a different school,’ he recalled.” However, as we all know, Jobs’s story is one of success. Cinderella stories like Jobs and Bill Gates prove that nerds get the last laugh.
According to an episode of Freakazoid, nerds run the world. “What nerds lack in physical prowess they make up in brains. Tell me, who writes all the best-selling books? Nerds. Who makes all the top-grossing movies? Nerds. Who designs computer programs so complex that only they can use them? Nerds. And who is running for high public office? No one but nerds. Without nerds to lead the way, the governments of the world will stumble; they’ll be forced to seek guidance from good-looking but vapid airheads.”
But I don’t want kids like me to have to go through years of teasing before they can benefit from their nerdiness. I want nerds to be appreciated right now. This goal can be achieved through projects like Google Science Fair, which encourages kids to pursue what may seem like nerdy passions to help the common good. Brittany Wenger, a 17-year-old from Lakewood Ranch, Florida, said in her application, “I love sci-fi and I’m good at coding”—two passions that are associated with the nerdy image. Brittany ended up winning in 2012 with an app that detected patterns in test results to identify breast cancer. We have to understand the advancements in the meaning of human existence nerds are capable of, and promote this intellectual growth rather than trying to silence it.
I don’t want to discontinue the use of the word nerd. I love nerds. Nerds are passionate, intelligent, and generally friendly people to be around. No, what I want to do is change the negative connotation of the word nerd—I want for nerd to not be an insult. I want nerds to get top billing—I want the word “nerds” to be in lights. I don’t want anyone to ever feel bad again for what they love, whether it’s Harry Potter or Star Wars or Star Trek.
Maybe my near-nerdy obsession with nerd culture seems like a silly issue to be campaigned, but this is actually a big deal. By extension, when we combat the negative connotation of the word “nerd,” we are simultaneously decreasing intolerance and cultivating an attitude of appreciation for passions shared by many.
As the author John Green said in a YouTube video: “Nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. When people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness’.”
It’s time to stop saying “nerd”—and start saying “nerd.”