I spent my whole young life in school fighting the stigma of nerd-dom. I don't think the term had yet been coined, but I know I would have been the perennial poster-boy. I carried my baby fat with me for 15 years, each year hoping that as
the fall sessions began, I would be magically transformed into a jock. For me, it didn't happen. Although I had a fair sized circle of friends, I was the "nerd" that the "cool guys" threatened, extorted, and generally thought of as being indefensible, partly due to my overweight stature and my smaller size.
The "survival of the fittest" is a lesson in its basic animal-form and being at the bottom of the food chain is painful and disillusioning. This social phenomenon can leave emotional scarring, feelings of isolation, questions of self-worth and a host of negative things that we shrug off as a survival tactic. I felt it in conversation with my wife, she felt it, and I suspect it is more common than we imagine. I have talked to many of my classmates in recent years, whom I would have labeled as "cool" back in the day, and they have experienced it!
Over the years, I have come to recognize the fragility of the adolescent psyche. Raw jungle mentality is the rule rather than the exception and I now see that most of my peers suffered from the same feelings of inadequacy that I did. An ongoing social assault was a way of life in school on the basis of “the best defense is a good
offense.” I suppose there were a few that were able to endure this without incident, but most of the alums I've talked with were surprisingly uncomfortable in their own skin. To complicate matters, these unwitting “scholastic gladiators” were all charged with getting an education at the same time. Kind of puts things in
perspective when you consider the “advertised” purpose of education.
Required reading in high school was William Golding's 1955 book, “Lord of the Flies,” focusing on this very subject, and going a step further into sustenance survival and governance. I wasn't much of a reader in school and I reported on the content of a lot of book jackets but this particular book caught my attention and I actually read it. The author had laid out in basic terms, the same scenario that was going on all around me...I just didn't connect the dots at the time.
We all get up each morning and look in the mirror. Many of us don't like what we see, but there is something unexplainable in that mirror that is redeeming. For some, perhaps it is hope, for some faith, and maybe for some, it's just potential. Everyone has to like something about that image and in a predatory social structure, it can be very hard to define, especially in adolescence.
For me, the sun came out in my senior year. All the baby fat fell off, I became more self-confident and knew I could protect myself against those thugs. My social life began to turn around and soon, I would be dating pretty girls. I viewed myself differently. My new posture and feeling of self-worth was uplifting. I was more outgoing and able to confront social situations without feeling ill-at-ease. After all those years of being the fat guy, the weakling, the wallflower, and all the things I had perceived of myself in this competitive race to nowhere, I was suddenly free.
What I learned in life and from that book (it may have been the only book I ever read in school) is that subconsciously I had allowed the “Lord of the Flies” to steal my dignity! At one time, as a small child, I knew I was a valuable human being, but that message had been lost somewhere in the system. Now, I had finally reclaimed this precious component that had always been mine. The superficiality of losing my baby fat, and becoming physically competent gave me the emotional strength I needed to stand tall.
From time to time during my life I have had to revisit that powerful well of self examination during rough emotional seas. Losses are a part of life and social
environment is not necessarily fair. Stay true to that image in the mirror, be honest in your assessments and require minimum standards of yourself. I've learned that you will achieve a greater degree of happiness and inevitably, you will kick the winning field goal.