Posted by: Amanda | June 22, 2011

Confession of a small-town geek

Geeks are not cool in Cherokee, Alabama, where I grew up. I spent years of my life trying to reinvent myself as someone else–a jock, for instance–to try to fit in this small town. But, it never worked. Neither of them worked–me being a jock or me fitting into the social fabric of Cherokee.

Oh, I never was a total outcast. I had one really close friend and a few other friends and a steady boyfriend all through high school. I was in clubs–even got elected secretary of the literary club once. I played sports. I did most of the things a normal person did until my senior year when I decided to not go to senior prom (junior prom was one of the biggest wastes of money I’d ever seen in my life). In that senior year of high school, I also decided to not play sports at all. For the first time, I started sensing who I might be and who I might become.

When I was young, probably 8 or 9, I spent nearly the entire summer reading every book that the Cherokee Public Library had to offer that my parents considered acceptable for me to read. By the time I was 13, I had read through another nearby library’s shelves. Thank goodness for the Helen Keller Public Library in Tuscumbia, Alabama, which gave me the chance to read more books than the closet-sized library in Cherokee had. I read a series of historical fiction books about young women who left home and went on these great adventures. Granted, a lot of them ended in a Hallmark made-for-TV sugary sweetness that would make most people gag. But it was the journey that transfixed me the most. Wanderlust grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Being a bookworm wasn’t my only nerdy attribute. I also had this disease called “poverty.” I didn’t even know until third grade when a girl in my class pointed out the fact that because I was on the free lunch program I was “poor.” Until then, social class hadn’t meant anything. But, I started noticing things: the clothes, the toys/gadgets, the school supplies. My parents, being industrious, made it with what we had. Their story is a fascinating tale of triumph over adversity that I’ll have to write more about one day, but this story is about me being a nerd. When I was 5, I got a Cabbage Patch Kid doll like other girls probably did. I didn’t know that my mom had sewn mine. At the time, Etsy didn’t exist and “homemade” was totally not hip. It just meant you couldn’t afford the mall.

Poverty is not contagious, let me assure anyone who thinks it might be. You can’t “catch” it, but you wouldn’t know that from the way most people act. I’ll never forget the look of disgust that girl in my third-grade class had when she announced my poverty to me. And, she probably doesn’t even remember that day that’s etched into my mind like the engraved name on a Zippo lighter.

By fourth grade, everyone in the town knew I was smart. I had received the HIGH (Highest In Grade Honor) award. Most (maybe all?) years between fourth and twelfth, I won this award. I was asked to deliver a speech at the eighth grade graduation. I was smart. Add another checkmark to the nerd list. Somehow, this poor girl with odd tendencies was making the highest grade in the school.

What kept me from falling through the cracks that most poor kids disappear into? My parents supported me and encouraged me to be more, to do more, to never settle for less than my best (cliche, I know, but it worked). But, there had to be more; after all, don’t many parents encourage their kids? I didn’t become a rocket scientist or a broker on Wall Street, but I did succeed. I became valedictorian of my class–a hard thing for the guidance counselor at the school to take I’m sure. He advised me to forget about a four-year university and pursue community college. I teach at a community college, so please don’t think that I’m saying it’s a poor choice. Community colleges are amazing. But, I had a chance to go to a four-year university on a full scholarship. But, every time I talked to the counselor about college, he made me wonder if I could really do it.

I won’t go into all the details about road blocks (like that same guidance counselor not submitting transcripts on time for me over and over again) because it might sound like whining, and here I am and everything I had to jump through taught me some important character traits: persistence, self control, and dignity.

I was watching TV the other night, a habit I’ve picked up again (thanks, Netflix instant streaming) after many years of no TV. I saw an episode of Ugly Betty where the main character is coming to terms with the fact that she was an outcast at school–she was the girl sitting on the bench waiting on someone to ask her to dance. She wanted to relive junior high so that she could have that chance to dance. Unlike Betty, I’m not wanting to redo the dance; I’m not full of wistfulness. Instead, I’m thankful I have only one regret: that I didn’t own my nerdiness until later in life.

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