Paul Graham wrote a great essay Why Nerds are Unpopular, which, encapsulated at its simplest, says smart secondary school students aren’t popular because they’d rather be smart. From observation and personal experience, I agree with Graham’s essay. And I’m even happier that Neil won’t have a secondary school experience where being smart is a social liability.
As a nerd fully happy in her nerditude, it was somewhat depressing, though, to find a smart child was already using her innate intelligence to be popular instead of smart. As context: Neil’s robotics coach put together an end-of-the-year ice cream social for the students. When Kelly and I arrived, the party was still going strong. While hanging out beside Kelly, I overheard some of the children talking to one another. One of the boys mentioned his accomplishments with the accelerated math program, and that Neil, who had been with him in his third grade year, had gotten to sixth grade math at the end of that year.
One of the girls put down the accomplishments neatly and swiftly: “I just never bother to do it. I have better things to do.” She was in Neil’s class last year, and I think she has the same teacher this year, so I’d suspect the teacher’s priorities in making sure each student pushes him or herself to his highest level probably aren’t that high. Now the assertion might be one thing if this girl were a slow student with attitude. But she’s not. She is clearly bright, and at least one of her parents has a Ph.D., so she doesn’t come from intellectual slackers either.
The one thing I know she puts effort in to is popularity. When Neil and she were in the same class last year, she quickly recruited him into the band she was forming. Neil happened to be the only person in the band who actually played an instrument, and had access to a real music studio. The band was all set for its first rehearsal until the stiffs Neil calls his parents realized the girls in the band planned to play with our instruments. After we made it clear that our instruments were not toys to be played with people who haven’t had real music lessons, and who may not know how to respect expensive musical equipment, and Neil had to report the information back, the band broke up. But the rest of the girls in the band that never was had become the leader’s private posse.
Later in the year, the same girl started a classroom newspaper, with the full blessing of the teacher. Already dubious about what was (or not) being taught in the classroom, I deeply hoped the newspaper was being put together during free time, not instead of lessons. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I had found out working on the newspaper was an alternative to doing something not as socially worthwhile, like, um, math.
And by the way, this is also not the same girl on Neil’s robotics team who said “I won’t do anything unless it has the word fun in it!” But it is awfully distressing to see these girls be so indifferent to education, and any effort to achieve it. Some smart kids would rather be smart than popular. But then it’s also true some smart kids (girls especially, I believe) would rather be popular than smart.