Alyssa Royse has been thinking about the geeks vs. jocks conflict in high school, and how it may shape the way our men grow up.
When Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network came out a few years ago, it brought the age-old battle between jocks and geeks to the forefront in a way that felt very personal to me at the time. He got in some trouble for his portrayal of geeks as angry people, but I found his clarification of that to be incredibly spot-on.
Sorkin explained, “I was writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people. These aren’t the cuddly nerds we made movies about in the 80’s. They’re very angry that the cheerleader still wants to go out with the quarterback instead of the men (boys) who are running the universe right now …”
This got me to thinking, about the whole geeks vs. jocks conflict in high school, and how it may well shape the way our men grow up. In fact, it must.
To be crystal clear, we’re talking about a subset of geeks. Most of my friends are geeks, and most of them are wonderful. But the subset that Sorkin was talking about is a subset that I know well. As one of a handful of women in the tech startup world at the time, and the girlfriend of a particularly angry and misogynistic geek, it rang really true.
I’ve got some quick empirical experience here, and you’ll have to bear with me here, this is gonna get personal. I usually go to great pains to hide my actual personal life, but I don’t know if I can do it in this one. It involves two recent lovers, my daughter, and the advice of a psychologist who encouraged us to raise a secure daughter more than an over-achieving daughter.
A recent EX was a geek. Possibly one of the geekiest (and most successful) guys in the universe. He wasn’t media’s idea of “attractive”, but I was head over heels in love with him. I loved his brain, the sweet soul I thought he had (and I thought I could heal,) the potential of things that we could do together. I loved HIM, not necessarily his body or his career or… We waited a LONG time before getting intimate, I was madly in love before we did. And I will, shamefully, admit that the first time I saw him naked, my first thought was, “oh my god, I don’t know if I can do this.”
I say that because it matters. That’s how in love I was. It didn’t take long to realize that we had extraordinary chemistry, and not long after that I would fantasize about the sight that had almost repelled me at first. I often told him how sexy I found him, how much I loved our chemistry, and could not have been more doting and appreciative.
However, on an almost daily basis, he would bring up the fact that he couldn’t get laid in high school. (30 years ago!) He was still bitter and resentful of the fact. We could be lying in each other’s arms, sweaty and exhausted from epic sex, and he would still repeat that he couldn’t get laid when he was young, because he was such a geek. I would say, time and time again, GET OVER IT. That’s the past, did you not see what we just did?
But he couldn’t. He couldn’t get over it. And I’m realizing now that maybe we can’t just get over it. So much of our sense of self is etched in stone in those early and awkward years. How our parents treated us, and our peers. Maybe he will always think of himself that way.
Fast forward. That ended. (Obviously.) And the next guy was precisely the guy that the geek would always say he “hated.” Yup, the jock. Captain of everything, most popular kid, frat, the whole works. (It’s worth noting that he is also super smart, SUPER smart, but that’s not really the point here.) When I finally saw him naked, I very stupidly said, “oh my god, really, I didn’t know they really made bodies like this.”
This guy is profoundly comfortable in his body, definitively relaxed and self-assured. It is so easy to be around, there is no ego to soothe, no self-image to repair no grudge, just pure sweetness. At one point, I said to him, “I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone as comfortable in their body as you are.” His response, “why wouldn’t I be?”
And therein lies the rub. This guy has never had anyone respond to him as if he was anything other than supremely desirable on all levels. We are a reflective species, we take our cues about our worth from how people around us respond to us. And he has internalized that in a very deep way. He just moves through life in the self-assured way of a man who has always felt success. Easy. (No sign of arrogance.) Same way the geek internalized the constant rebuff and now moves around with a controlling need to prove his worth.
I thought about families of origin. But the geek had a perfectly normal middle-class upbringing. Although he can ramble off the same list of complaints that we all can about our parents and whatnot, his childhood was just fine. The jock? His childhood was shit. Oprah Show level shit.
When I think about the two of them, I keep returning to the fact that one of them always felt like an unwanted misfit, and the other always felt like a perfect fit. They are, as adults, exactly who they were in high school. Though as people they have each evolved, the role they play, the lens through which they look at themselves is still that old one. For one of them, that’s great. For the other, it’s a serious handicap.
Now, my daughter and the psychologist. When our daughter was in kindergarten, she was showing signs of some seriously gifted academic prowess. We were told that we “had” to put her into the gifted school. She didn’t want to change schools. As parents, her dad and I were conflicted. We wanted to give her the best shot possible, so shouldn’t we accelerate her? But, at the same time, she was so happy!
So we consulted a child-psychologist who gave us the best advice ever. She told us that the job of childhood is for children to discover and know themselves in a way that will serve them as adults. That if our daughter woke up every day of her youth feeling happy, engaged, connected, and successful, she would likely think of herself that way for her whole life. Whereas, if we accelerated her and she woke up every day thinking she was going to struggle, have to compete and never be good enough, she would think of herself that way all her life. It became very simple. We left her where she was. She has, as the psychologist told us she would, consistently invented ways to challenge herself academically. More importantly, she is a connected and compassionate part of her little community, deeply happy and curious and engaged.
I hope that someday she will be an adult who feels the same way. I think about the Jock, and am hoping that we’re raising a kid who has his level of comfort with self and place in the world.
But I also feel bad for the geek. I wish I could have been his mother. By the time I got to him, it was too late. And that’s not my job anyway.
As for high school, I suspect she’ll be fine. And besides, I think that high school needs girls like her. Girls who are kind, smart, generous and able to make others feel wanted and appreciated. I think that’s the most compelling argument I’ve heard for teaching compassion to children. So that they can be compassionate in junior high and high-school, and maybe we can eliminate the whole “vs.” game that seems to scar us. (I am trying to teach her that geeks are where it’s at, but clearly, you have to get to them before they get all bitter and angry.)
There is something decidedly prophetic in Sorkin’s defense of his film, and accurate in his explanation of the arrogant, and maybe even accidental, misogynistic behavior of the angry geeks in The Social Network. But it is a totally accurate portrayal of the men I know who are on that level of that world. They never got over it.
If we are going to feel as adults as we did in high school, then we need to be teaching a lot more than math and science. We need to teach kids that they are wanted, appreciated, desirable and valuable.
And that sometimes, success can be defined as waking up every morning and knowing that you have a place in the world, and people who are so glad to share it with you. Now. Because if you can get over your past, your future is yours for the taking.