The Care and Feeding of your geek
When I was twelve, I skipped school for six weeks to write my first novel. It was about Henry VIII's fifth wife, Kathryn Howard and had a lot of silly words in it that I didn’t know how to use yet. It was wildly overwritten, in the way of first novels...and if you're wondering why on earth a twelve-year-old would even find something like Henry Tudor that interesting, let alone write a novel about him, you’ve clearly never met anyone as dorky and weird as I am.
My long-suffering single mother would go to work in the morning. I’d wave cheerily from the bus stop as she drove past with her coffee in hand, barely awake, barely functional, a preview of things to come when, many years hence, I was the single mother chuffing by, bleary-eyed and tragically under-caffeinated. The minute her car turned the corner, I raced back into the house and locked the door.
Any right-thinking kid—any normal kid—would have drunk beer or toilet-papered a house or gotten in a whole bucket-load of trouble. But I was far from normal. You see, I was what we refer to as a “problem child.” On the outside, it was all eyeliner and sarcasm. On the inside, I had a hundred geeky enthusiasms.
I knew more about the Tudors and the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans and the Stuarts than most people knew about their own families. I was fascinated by the idea of just bulldozing over people to get your way, be it a divorce, a woman, or a war. Henry VIII enclosed feudal lands, drove off the peasants, balkanized England, beheaded dissenters, and gave the Pope a pre-Protestant noogie. He was a tyrant in every sense of the word, a despicable, horrible man, and I couldn't feed my hungry brain enough information about this period of time when women navigated by their beauty, wits, and wiles.
Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife, held him at bay for six years so he'd marry her. He may have been the King of England, but Anne worked him like a puppet.
I'd write longhand. I still write longhand. I'd plow through my mother's vinyls and put Bach or Chopin, something classical, on the turntable. I was insane with joy. The whole day stretched before me, hours and hours of unstructured time, time to do what I wanted, which was write. When the school called, I pretended to be sick. "My mother's at work," I'd rasp. "The doctor said I couldn’t go to school until the boils dried up.”
I never worried about catching up or my grades because I didn't care. There were no grand expectations about "being a writer" or starving elegantly in a garret in Paris or seeing my name in lights. I didn't even know about those things. I just wanted to be left alone to do what I wanted to do. Was that so much to ask?
When my mother found out (no doubt through some brazen attempt by the school to contact her personally), she didn't know whether to hug me or hang me. What does any parent do with a child that is genetically incapable of toeing the line? School was a miserable experience for me, one I’m inflicting on my own children now, although I wish there were happier alternatives.
But looking back, I realize just how formative a time that was in my life. Isn’t that what we all want—to do our own thing? I don’t mean sitting around comatose and watching hours of television (although sometimes that’s a blessing, too) but to pursue the things that interest us, whether learning how to code, crotchet or cook—or in my case, conjure worlds with my imagination.
School gets it all wrong. Having a well-rounded education is important, but if you’re not interested in something, how are you going to retain that information? Short answer: you don’t.
Yet if you are allowed to pursue even a mild interest, many times it will blossom into a flower with many branches. My interest in English history, for instance, spurred a desire to study Shakespeare. Studying Shakespeare allowed me to learn more about poetry in general and iambic pentameter in particular. From my fascination with poetry came a love of Baudelaire; ergo, the desire to learn French. It was self-prescribed Montessori.
Instead, I was stuck in the back of a geometry classroom, a subject I failed miserably, by the way, struggling to stay awake, failing even in that, and sleep-drooling all over my notebook.
Being a geek is a life force. Embrace it. Everyone has something they’re geeky about. My advice as a lifelong geek, nerd, dork, spaz, moron, loser?
DIVE IN. See where it takes you.