Tribe of the Nerds

My hometown schoolmates considered me a nerd. Not all of them and not my closest friends, but the other kids. My hometown in Iowa was named after the Sauk (Sac) Indian Chief – Chief Keokuk – and so I likened the school cliques to tribes. I belonged to the Tribe of the Nerds.

One reason for the nerd label was that I liked school and I liked to learn, and in order to learn, I needed the right equipment. Like choosing the right sneaker for a sport, I needed the right educational gear.

In the case of sneakers, one does not simply let the parents pick what’s on sale at K-Mart or Target. Choosing a sneaker that was fading in popularity following the discovery and declaration of the next hot brand could result in expulsion from your own tribe and many lonely lunches in the cafeteria. When the lunch ladies took an interest in you, you might as well start lobbying the parents for a transfer to another school. Unfortunately, in my hometown, there were only 2 choices, one public and one private and the private school was Catholic and expensive. It was the rare student that could make a comeback from being a lunch lady leper.

“Sorry Marty, I can understand the whole ‘I’m an individual’ thing you got goin’ on, but you’re wearing the…what the hell ARE you wearing? The leather Nike Cortez is the must-have shoe this year. The Jack Purcells are out. You know what Jack Purcell is famous for, right? Fucking badminton. Is that even a sport? O shit, here comes Julie and Randy. I gotta go, see ya later. Get those shoes. Ask your parents!”

The choice of what covered my skin was critical. Buck the tribal colors and risk banishment. But I didn’t feel the same way about accessories. I was wrong, but I didn’t care. There’s fashion and then there’s just being stupid.

In 7th grade, I began carrying a small, black, 12 x 16 inch, soft, faux leather, zippered briefcase, to keep my books and papers organized while walking to and from school. It was roughly the size and shape of an oversized coffee table art book, with a copper plated zipper running along its edge. When unzipped, the briefcase opened like a book to reveal 2 main compartments, each with a pocket and a strap to hold everything in place, and a few other zippered pockets for pencils, erasers and what not. Velcro hadn’t yet arrived on the scene, so everything had a zipper. Whenever I unzipped the briefcase, I lowered my face towards it and took a deep breath. This was my bow of reverence to the Master before starting my lesson for the day. I breathed deeply from the nerd-intoxicating vapors of Ditto machine handouts, Ticonderoga pencil paint, the rubber of well used erasers and the faint smell of copper generated by the friction of the zippers. I loved that smell. It made me feel smart.

Apparently it wasn’t cool to be seen not only carrying books and school work, but carrying them in a neat little briefcase. Considering that backpacks became ubiquitous years later, I decided I was just ahead of my time.

…to be continued

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