November 1, 2011

Talk Nerdy to Me

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In lieu of an emotionally charged commentary on Occupy Anything or how degrading Halloween is, I just want to highlight one of my favorite costumes of the Halloweekend. On Monday, I was walking around campus and ended up behind some kind of ghoul or black-cloaked being. As I got closer, I tried to read the sign on his back. Count something… Count Dracula? Count Chocula? No, Count Fracula. I thought missed some kind of pop culture reference or inside joke (Fratty Dracula?) but upon closer examination I saw that the paper bag mask on his head was covered in geometric shapes. Fractals.

Oh my GOD, Cornell is so nerdy. And I love it.

I, and perhaps many of you, spent my childhood and adolescent years as a nerd. I thought I was pretty normal but I was consistently and neatly packaged under the “nerd” label because I always did the extra credit and regularly skipped lacrosse to take practice Calculus exams. When I went to parties hosted by the “popular” kids, I’d inevitably hear a few cries of surprise — “Who let the AP kids out?” “I didn’t know you guys partied.” Um, just because I was both the spelling bee and geography bee champion in seventh grade doesn’t mean that I don’t like to have fun.

Here at Cornell, we’re all closet nerds, some more closeted than others. Maybe you have the entire Harry Potter box set (in another language). Maybe you code websites in your free time. Maybe you’ve started your own company or are a published poet or can name the atomic weight of every element. No matter what major you are, I like to think that we all get off on the thrill of learning enough to be considered nerdy.

We’ve self-selected ourselves into this kind of environment — it may not be true of all colleges. but we picked this university in particular because we’re smart, we like being smart and we like being around smart people. I’ve realized that one of the biggest changes has been that in college, it is finally valued — and dare I say, cool — to be smart.

In high school, that kid who had a perfect accent in Spanish class was either a native speaker or trying way too hard. In college, “no com-pren-doh” won’t get you any points, or ass for that matter. It’s no longer cute to be flaky or to fail tests like you couldn’t care less. It actually isn’t that funny to mispronounce words when you’re reading out loud. The library is a straight-up social scene and being smart, accomplished and mentally stimulating is a turn-on.

I guess it’s part of growing up, the first step in the transition that turns the table on the traditional high school dichotomy. I suppose the joke is that at your 10-year high school reunions, the popular captain of the football team will be a fat deadbeat and the valedictorian who spent his Friday nights at Science Club is now a millionaire with a hot wife. As a former (and current) nerd myself, I’d love to see the Mathletes make a comeback, but maybe those stereotypes are equally as false as the ones that paint smart kids as anti-social losers.

The best part about the people at Cornell is that many of them are the entire package. I’ve met athletes who can ace an engineering exam after studying for an hour and frat boys who can crack any brainteaser you give them. The same kids you joke around with at lunch are scientists, debaters and thinkers. We can be philosophers by day and flash mobbers by night. In college, it’s not Erkel or bust — you can be both intelligent and fun, “Best Personality” and “Most Likely to Succeed,” the qualities are equally important and in no way mutually exclusive.

One time over break, I went to the bars back home and inevitably ran into my entire high school. We all had a few drinks together and already I could feel the paradigm shifting. I was no longer intimidated by or bitter towards the kids who used to talk to me only to copy my homework. They’re smarter than I thought and I’m more fun than they thought.

In general, college lets everyone start fresh, free to break old stereotypes or proudly embody them. You have the power to be whoever you want to be and by now you might actually know who that is. I like to think that being comfortable in the nerdy atmosphere of college has helped me be more confident and outgoing and I hope it’s helped all those kids who used to think it was lame to be smart embrace their inner Count Fraculas.

Original Author: Rebecca Lee