Like a lot of geeks, I spent several years in social hell as a kid. You know the routine. They passed mean notes about me in class. They got together in big groups at lunchtime, surrounded me, and asked me weird, sneering questions. They punched me, insulted me, crank called my house at 3 AM, and smeared pizza sauce on my favorite white shirt. And the strange thing is that I think they made me a better person. Here are six life lessons I learned from being bullied when I was a geeky kid.
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1. Ignore Insults and Keep Going
When I was in middle school, I was without a doubt one of the most unpopular girls there. I'm really not exaggerating. Kids called me names and made fun of me pretty much all day. This could take any number of forms, from making creepy faces at me in the halls to getting together in a large group I dubbed the "Hate Patrol" and ambushing me at lunch. I was only beaten up a couple of times. The torture was mostly psychological. "Why are you so gaaaaaaay?" they would ask. "Do you feel bad that everybody haaaaaates you?"
There were a lot of ways I could have responded to this level of scrutiny and cruelty. Some of the unpopular kids at my school definitely went semi-Columbine, and supposedly one muscle-bound nerd beat the shit out of my tormenters once. (I never verified this.) But my coping mechanism was always to go into android mode. I would ignore them as much as I could, even when they got right into my face. But of course that wasn't always possible. So I took to giving extremely terse, robotic answers to their questions. I read a book on how to reply to insults, and took a few good lessons from it that proved to be very effective.
My favorite technique was to flip insulting comments back around. "Do you think you're popular?" a Hate Patroller asked me at lunch, with all her friends waiting for my inevitable, pathetic answer. "Do you think you're popular?" I replied, all Data style. She found herself trying to explain that well, yeah, she was popular, but um . . . well not that she was conceited, but . . . and then she degenerated into embarrassed babbling. Triumph for the android! I learned to think of insults as a kind of irritating part of the landscape, something to be avoided mechanically. Certainly I would never take them personally, in the same way one wouldn't take it personally if pricked by a thorn.
I cannot tell you how many times my ability to ignore insults and carry on has helped me later in life. Being a writer is basically an endless gauntlet of insults, unfair characterizations, and rejections. Whether it's editors rejecting your Great Work Of Awesome, or readers screaming at you for disagreeing with them, you can't make it as a writer without learning to keep going in a giant crowd of middle school bullies. Honestly, what could anybody possibly say to me now that would be any worse than what I already lived through, day after day, when I was at my most vulnerable?
2. Everybody Is Probably Laughing at You, But It's Not Really A Big Deal
When I was in the seventh grade, I took a musical theater class entirely because the boy I had a crush on was writing the school musical. Through a series of awful circumstances I don't even want to go into, I wound up with a small part in the school musical playing the mother of one of the most popular girls. When we put on the play in school assembly, I walked out on stage to deliver my three lines, and everybody in the auditorium booed. For me. But that wasn't all! Because we had to put on the play twice, so that everybody in my giant middle school could see it. That meant I got to come out on stage for booing twice. Yes, it was just as awesome as it sounds. None of the teachers intervened, of course. They never did.
And you know what? It really didn't matter. I said my lines, I got off the stage, and I wound up dating the (very geeky) boy who wrote the musical. I guarantee that nobody who booed me thought about it (or me) even a few hours later. Most of the people who booed weren't even part of the Hate Patrol. They were just bored and annoyed that they had to watch a stupid school musical, and when the Hate Patrol started the boos they were happy to join in. If it wasn't a big deal to everybody else, why should it be a big deal to me?
What I learned from this may sound kind of peculiar. But you know how some people are paranoid that everybody is laughing at them? I've actually faced that fear as a reality. Everybody was laughing at me, while I stood on stage. And then it was over, and I was just fine. I think this may be why I rarely get paranoid, and why I don't slit my wrists when the entire internet screams at me for something I've written. Hey — I had the balls to stand on stage while a bunch of psychotic thirteen-year-olds mocked me. That's shark cage level shit.
3. There Is Nothing More Important than Friendship
When you're a geeky kid, it's really easy to figure out who your true friends are. They are the ones who will stick by you when the Hate Patrol comes around. I had a lot of great friends in middle school, partly because I had a policy of actively trying to make friends with the other geeks. Once you've got at least one pal, you can actually start having fun with the Hate Patrol. You can make fun of them back, or you can just mess with them because (let's face it) inevitably they are a lot stupider than you. That's why they enjoy being shitsacks.
I had a friend in middle school with a lazy eye, and you can only imagine what the Hate Patrol had to say about that. "Is there something wroooooooong with you?" they asked her one day. "Actually," I said, "There is. She is suffering from a really serious disease and it's contagious." My friend played along. By the end of this encounter, we had managed to convince the Hate Patrol that my friend was going to infect them with Deadly Eye-itis. She and I also had a lot of fun with the girls who thought it was hilarious to make faces at us. We would walk by, wait for them to make the faces, then bust out laughing and point at them.
This is just to say that nothing taught me the value of friendship more than bonding with my fellow geeks and outcasts during our times of great adversity. Some people learn about loyalty and having each other's backs in battle. I learned about it in middle school.
4. Fantasies Are More Powerful Than Pain
My experiences with being mocked as a kid came in waves. Middle school was bad, but not quite as exquisitely horrific as fourth and fifth grade. In middle school, at least I had friends. In the fourth grade, when I was known as "Cow Eyes" and "Miss Piggy," I had no one to turn to but Ursula Le Guin and Anne McCaffrey and Walter Farley. They wrote the novels about dragons, horses, and magic that got me through the worst of being a geeky kid. From their books and many others, I learned how to create my own fantasies in my head.
To this day, I have an incredibly high tolerance for pain because I know how to go into fantasy mode and shut off negative inputs with a powerful, internally generated story. Which is a great thing for when you're having a particularly painful procedure at the doctor. But it's also a good thing on those days (or lifetimes) when you recognize that there is just something profoundly wrong with the entire world. Fantasies can be good escapism, but they can also help us figure out how to set things right. Every piece of justice, no matter how small, starts with a story you tell yourself about why something is wrong.
5. Always Distrust Popularity
When people flock in droves to a movie, a person or a gadget, my guard immediately goes up. I've seen firsthand how easily popularity slides into Hate Patrol scenarios. I also know that popular things are not always the best. By the same token, just because the crowd boos something doesn't mean it is valueless.
Keeping this lesson in mind has given me an interesting and often helpful critical distance from pop culture. While some people insist that we should just turn our brains off when we watch popular movies, for example, I find that I always turn my brain on. I am wary of what's being shoved into my brain along with those popular faces and ideas. Same goes for popular scientific and technological wisdom. If everybody says something is true, I always want to test that. Maybe this is the same feeling that drives so many scientists — probably former geeky kids themselves — to question the dominant hypotheses.
A side-benefit to distrusting popularity is is always being open to unpopular things. Often they turn out to be awesome. Whether it's a novel released by a small press, or a movie made in somebody's backyard, I always try to give it a chance.
6. Give Up On Revenge
Sure, there were a couple of times I took revenge on my Hate Patrol groupies. Especially once I started hanging out with proto-computer hackers in high school, it was pretty easy to do simple, sneaky things to fuck with people who bullied me. But no amount of revenge would ever take away the bad feelings I'd endured. And besides, on a pragmatic level, how could I take revenge on 1500 kids who laughed at me in the auditorium? What a waste of time.
People who have never confronted mass rejection struggle with the desire to get revenge all the time. It's so tempting, when there are just two or three people who have wronged you. But when you've dealt with creepiness or injustice or whatever you want to call it on a large scale, you realize that the best thing you can possibly do is just keep going and survive. Because that adversity makes you stronger. It teaches you that your worst paranoid fantasies can be endured, but your best fantasies can give comfort in the dark times. Instead of pissing away your energies on bullies, you can form a united geek front and just have fun with friends.
Best of all, being bullied taught me to question popularity of all kinds, whether it's in Hollywood and the White House, or on Facebook and the Nobel Prize list. Just because everybody likes it doesn't mean it's good.