I wasn’t particularly popular in grade school. Consumed with academics, I disengaged from the social hierarchy, not consciously, but because there were always other things to worry about. I floated around the social ladder but never stayed on one rung too long.
In grade school, there were fewer social niches to inhabit, and accruing popularity points was a full-time job. In middle and high school, everyone was keenly aware of where everyone else fit in the social landscape, and they were lying if they told you otherwise. Everyone was dying to reach an imaginary social ideal built by the students. Perception was everything.
College has been a breath of fresh air for me. I have many friends who classify themselves as nerds, and they all seem to report the same feelings: The majority of grade school was a criminal waste of time and a frustrating crapshoot. College is less isolating, more rewarding, and generally a better place to be. Of course, there was the occasional teacher who made things worthwhile but, in general, the monotony of American schools brings no end in misery for the classic nerd.
For the nerd, self-achievement is everything. In his 2003 essay “Why Nerds are Unpopular,” Paul Graham explains that nerds don’t just want to be smart and do well in school. “[I wanted] to design beautiful rockets, or to write well, or to understand how to program computers. In general, to make great things.”
“You have no idea the hell I climbed out of to come here,” an acquaintance humored me on his admission to the Computer-Based Honors Program at Alabama. He was a quirky, intelligent guy whom I often spotted eating alone in the dining halls my freshman year. He was a natural introvert, and he liked it. He could do what he pleased in college, pursuing a major he loved within a culture that rewarded difference and ingenuity.
There is more of an incentive to be a hard-working, motivated, intellectually engaged, self-directed student in college. “Nerd” is no longer a derogatory term. Preferring knowledge to social dominance is not a bad thing. For the nerds, it does get better. You just have to wait it out and have enough self-confidence to find your niche.