The Nerd

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The stereotype of "The Nerd" fit me pretty well in high school. I was tall, skinny, good at math and wildly unpopular. I didn't wear glasses or a pocket protector, though. Looking back, I probably had more conceit with less foundation for it than most of our classmates. I was good at math and I liked to read, which helped my writing. Watching the Olympics doesn't make you a faster runner, but if you read enough good writing some of it rubs off. Hyperbole, understatement, allusion, phrasing and metaphor can be acquired by osmosis, so to speak. The reading helped in the other subjects. In high school, if you understand the text well enough to be able to spit it back on the mid-term and final, you can do well no matter if the subject is Drivers' Ed, Biology or History. My academic skills were based on reading three or four years above grade level and a penchant for plane geometry. I had no athletic skills, no musical skills, no mechanical skills and no social skills, but I thought I was better than everyone who wasn't in the college prep track. So there I was, a triple threat; math, English and arrogance.

As a side note on intellectual superiority, that warm feeling of being the smartest frog in a small pond lasted about 28 hours once I got to UC Berkeley. I moved into a co-op across the street from the Engineering College about one in the afternoon on Sunday. The next night at five I was eating dinner with seven others. The student across from me was a fellow freshman. Just to start the conversation and show off my vocabulary, I said college was going to be a quantum leap in difficulty from high school, wasn't it? He said modestly it was going to be harder but he didn't foresee any difficulty because he had been a CSF seal bearer. I said that was interesting, because I had been a CSF seal bearer myself. I asked the rest of the table how many of them had been seal bearers. Four of the other six had. The remaining two would have qualified if they had gone to high school in California. Then I asked how many had been National Merit Semi-Finalists; five of us eight, but not my new friend, had been that, too.

Back to dear old CVHS, there I was in the class, raising my hand every time the teacher asked a question. No one likes a show-off; was it any wonder I wasn't popular? In my defense, it was my only chance to shine; I was always picked last when we chose up teams in PE, but if you wanted to know the capital of Tasmania, I was your man. (Hobart.)

As a side note on showing off, the best dramatic performance by a major league pitcher I ever saw was a couple of years ago during a World Series. A fellow hit a homer, then ran around the bases with one arm hanging limp, as if the pitcher had a crippled arm. The next time this batter got up, the pitcher hit him in that arm, midway between shoulder and elbow, with a 110-mph fast ball. The whole world knew the pitcher had decided to punish the batter for showing off. They also knew he'd decided not to shatter the batter's elbow, which would end his career; just a friendly reminder, six inches long, dead black in the center and fading to purple at the edges, not to be a showboat the next time he got lucky in the batter's box. The pitcher had picked his spot to within an inch and hit exactly what he was aiming at. When they asked him about it in the post-game interview, he said, with a perfectly straight face, "I don't know. That pitch got away from me."

My twin brother's life ambition was to play first base for the Milwaukee Braves. Mine was to be an intellectual. I imagined I'd listen to classical music, go to ballets, wear corduroy sport coats with leather elbow patches, read Shakespeare, drink varietal wine, smoke a pipe, use big words in casual conversation and teach high school English. Back then I couldn't afford a sport coat or ballet tickets. I was too young to drink or smoke. About half the time I tried to use a big word in conversation - a word I'd only read in books, never heard - my father would correct my pronunciation and my siblings would laugh at me. I could listen to classical music, though, via radio station KKHI. I liked it. Never content to let well enough alone, I told my brother the stuff he listened to (KFRC, which played the standard high school rock and roll top 40 fare) was garbage and mine was better, neener, neener, neener. Looking back, I realize my attitude was as narrow-minded as the bumper sticker which reads "If it ain't country, it ain't sh*t."

As a side note on bumper sticker sentiments, I'm often tempted to put a note under the windshield wiper of cars with that particular bumper sticker, saying "You're right, Bubba; the music I listen to is neither Country nor is it sh*t."

As a side note on wine, in March of our senior year Mr. Smith got five of us (male) Social science Honors Course students into a four-day symposium at St. Mary's College with GATE funds. The Christian Brothers run the college. The same order made wine. The most important speeches of the day were at dinner, where they served wine. There were 500 businessmen and five high-school students at the symposium. CB Vineyards had sent a truckload of their finest down to Moraga to make the symposium guests feel comfortable. Mr. Smith told us we could drink, but if we made fools of ourselves we wouldn't be back. My first real experience with alcohol was a small glass of Pinot Noir and one of Cabernet with a thick slice of roast baron of beef. My second, the next night, was Chardonnay and Johannisberg Riesling with Chicken a la Kiev. I liked varietal wines a lot, right from the start. I thought of you guys choking down Red Mountain out on a back road. Sometimes it pays to be smart.

I hated Concord; I used to think myself as a prisoner with a ball and chain on each ankle, one labeled "conformity," the other "complacency." As long as you fit the norm and were happy to do so, I thought, you could get through life at CVHS without any major scars. This ignored the fact lots of my peers managed to be out of the ordinary and not get dinged for it. Paul St. John, to name one, was a brilliant scholar and an accomplished violinist. He reveled in classical music, yet managed to have friends; he even had a date to the Senior Prom, something I missed.

As a side note on conformity, in 1968 I was at a Joan Baez concert at the Greek Theater in Berkeley with a thousand other fiercely independent free-thinkers, iconoclasts and non-conformists. 700 of us were wearing blue chambray work shirts and Levi's.

At the start of my junior year I realized my only ticket out of Concord was going to be a college scholarship, and if I was going to get one I should concentrate on studying. In every class that the teacher let us choose our seats I picked one in the front row. I figured there would be less opportunity to talk to anyone, since I'd have to turn, and besides, I'd be right under the teacher's eye. It worked; my grades got better and what little social life I had evaporated.

As a side note, that's why I don't recognize so many of you. You saw the back of my head and my hand shooting up in the air, but I didn't see you. I had an unobstructed view of the chalkboard and could hear you in the back, but that was about it.

I spent three to four hours on homework every school night and mowed people's lawns on weekends. The money went straight into my college fund.

Was it worth it? Maybe. I went to the finest public university west of the Mississippi for four years without costing my parents a dime. I worked in Forest Service camps during the summer, so I was independent of them then, too. They sent me roughly $80 over the four years, $5 or $10 every once in a while when they could afford it. Just before I graduated I sent them a gift certificate for dinner in a first-class restaurant and a night in a two-star hotel. The package cost me $120. At the time I thought that made us even.

My social skills are still abysmal; only two of our three children talk to me, and I can count the people who reciprocate our dinner invitations on one hand. If I could go back in time and spend just sixty seconds with myself as a sophomore, I'd slap myself alongside the head and tell me "Enough with the arrogance! You read well; so what? That doesn't make you better, it just means your spark is reading. Everyone has a spark, even the kids in the shop classes. Look for it. Appreciate it, even if it isn't the same spark you have. Enjoy the differences. Make some friends who don't hang out in the chess club at lunch. And, while you're at it, buy Microsoft at 14."

Ted Pack

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This page updated: February 11, 2017