I’m twelve years old, about to be thirteen, and I’m crying my eyes out in a bathroom stall thinking: not fair not fair not fair. I’ve just lost the election for student body president by sixteen votes. I sat in Sister Marie Celeste’s office as the ballots were counted and listened to the news, my grin a rictus across my face. (I know that word “rictus” a kind of death grin, because I just read a book in which half the population of an imaginary country is wiped out by the plague and riddled with “grinning” corpses). My opponent, a cheery, cute cheerleader who already wears bras that are not from the “training” section, with perfectly feathered bangs, who has already kissed boys, jumps up from her seat and hugs me excitedly.
“Congratulations,” I say, and then bolt from the door before the tears start.
It’s really dumb. I should be thrilled I got this far. That’s what I tell myself, anyway, as I sit on the can in my sailor suit uniform, sniffling into a wad of toilet paper. I am a nerd. A misfit. An outsider and not in the cool S.E. Hinton way. I had some nerve even running. I should have known it was a popularity contest, and that as the bookworm with Battlestar Galactica framed glasses and an annoyingly large vocabulary, I had very little chance. But – and I don’t know where this stubborn belief came from – I thought I might be able to win if I campaigned on the ISSUES: Better student events; playground mentors; baked goods fundraisers at recess. I foolishly thought that the same forty girls I’d been in parochial school with since kindergarten might view me differently once they heard my ideas.
My campaign speech was eloquent and impassioned, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the cheer my opponent’s friends perform for her. It was set to the cadence of “Let’s Get A Little Bit Rowdy” but they changed the words. “Let’s! Get! A little bit votes for _____! Right! Now!” The egregious grammatical errors did not trouble the crowd the way they did me. Unfazed, I plunged into the second part of my plan, a blitzkrieg of stickers distributed by my handful of geeky friends to the younger students. I was aiming for the fickle but crucial K-3rd grade votes.
On week two of the campaign, I switched to scratch ‘n sniff stickers, which cost more of my carefully hoarded allowance money but turned out to be a genius move. That was how I pulled within sixteen votes of victory despite my bottle-thick glasses, unfashionably frizzy hair, and Leave It to Beaver-esque buck teeth.
I’m not crying so much because I lost, but because I’d been hoping against hope that through my campaigning, I’d have been accepted. So here I am, hiccupping quietly in my stall when I hear two of the popular girls walk in. They’ve taken great pleasure over the years in making fun of me for the way I talk (in Hawaii, a kid who grows up not speaking the pidgin Creole because her mother insists on proper English in the home is likely to get her ass beat for being “hybolic.” As in “Eh, why you tryin’ fo’ ac’? How come you gotta talk all hybolic li’dat?”), my uncool clothes (a Member’s Only jacket but it is actually my dad’s and even when I roll up the sleeves, it hangs on me like curtains), and my obsession with Star Wars. They fundamentally do not get that I like reading Little Women at recess instead of rushing out to the ball court to play dodgeball – which in my book is adult-sanctioned, kid-on-kid violence.
“So, that Nanea kid actually tried to run for president?” asks Popular Girl #1. “I know,” laughs Popular Girl #2. “It’s like she forgot she’s a nerd.” I wait fifteen minutes after they leave before I emerge. I’m late to class, but the teacher loves me, so she doesn’t scold me.
What I want to tell that angry little twelve-year-old girl is, “Hold on! The age of the nerds is coming! All the things that make you different and strange are the things that people will LOVE you for someday.” Twelve-year-old me doesn’t know that someday a magical thing called the Internet will exist and it will connect her to her fellow disenfranchised weirdos. She doesn’t know that loving passionately, weirdly, unashamedly is a gift. She doesn’t know that in the future, people will proudly claim the title of nerd and geek and fangirl. She only knows that right now, the word is thrown like a stone.
In the gauntlet of middle school, all of my focus is on blending. I’m not the kind of nerd who doesn’t care what people think. I care so much I have anxiety attacks over it (twelve-year-old me could have benefited from a generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis). I want to fit in, but I just don’t have the social savvy. And I’m probably too cerebral for my own good. I like strange books and big words. I read the Encyclopedia Britannica for fun, for godsakes (again, c’mon INTERNET, hurry up). It’s no wonder I love stories about space and far away kingdoms. Maybe in a different galaxy, far, far away, I’d be normal.
What happens is that I leave the tiny little school at age 14 for a bigger high school and the tiny little island in the middle of the Pacific – briefly for college, and then permanently after I get married. I take with me my anxiety and nerdish tendencies. I grow into myself. I stop being shy about showing my weird because 1) No matter how strange or obsessive your love is, someone else out there shares it and is DYING to talk to you about it—and maybe write some fanfiction to go with it. 2) How else can you find the right people if you don’t wear your Hogwarts house affiliation or your Jayne hat openly?
What I learn is that I should never forget that I’m a nerd. I learn that most people have a bit of nerd in them as well, and that we can celebrate that. I greet you, fellow weirdos. Nerdmaste. The divine awkward in me honors the divine awkward in you.