How Nerd Camp Saved My Life

The summer I was 14, I went to two different summer camps. The difference between them summed up the central crisis of my life at the time: Was I going to identify as the geek or the Kid With Issues?

Nov 3, 2011 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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The summer I was 14, I went to two different summer camps. We’ll call them nerd camp and cool camp, although I personally was never cool.

Nerd camp involved five hours of class a day, plus homework; cool camp had classes too, I think, but they were short and dumb and I don’t remember ever going to them anyway. Nerd camp didn’t allow you off-campus without an escort, even to the convenience store; the favored pastime at cool camp was smoking up in the local graveyard. At nerd camp I hung out with the nerds, because duh. At cool camp I traded self-injury stories and tips with the other cutters.

My friends at nerd camp were bright, enthusiastic and silly like it was their job. My friends at cool camp, if they even were my friends, were glamorous -- Heather, the only one I stayed in touch with for any length of time, was the most stylish person I knew, and I also remember twins, one plump and one slim, both with almond eyes and straight dark hair and freckles, who were the most beautiful people I’d met before or, probably, since. Except for Heather, though, I couldn’t really talk to them -- I didn’t know anything about clothes or clubbing or drugs. My only password into that group was my scars.

That six weeks summed up the central crisis of my life at the time: Was I going to identify as the geek or the Kid With Issues? Unlike my cool-camp friends, I wasn’t troubled in the photogenic Runaways kind of way, just disgruntled and self-loathing and sad. Sensibly enough, most other kids didn’t understand me, because I was awkward and abstracted and generally not really any fun to understand.
 
This usually got written off as my being “smart,” which wasn’t a total fabrication; I read everything, including stuff that was supposed to be beyond me, and I always tested into the special programs. But I didn’t really succeed in school -- I didn’t bother to perform if I didn’t like the class, but was decimated by self-doubt if I did. I was poised midway between “brain” and “fuckup.”

At cool camp, it was my issues that made me worthwhile. We didn’t have much in common except self-loathing, but we helped each other feed and hone it. One girl taught us how to make a smiley-face scar using a cigarette lighter. I dyed my hair blue for the first time. We were into skipping meals, and kissing boys we didn’t like, and sneaking out, and scorning things -- not particularly bad kids, just heavily into proving how disaffected we were.

It wasn’t all nihilistic; a boy gave me some new sci-fi to read, Heather got me more invested in LGBT causes, I was introduced to “Rocky Horror.” But mostly it was about banding together with people you had little common ground with, just because you all hated yourselves and also everything.

I was good at that -- I still am. But I wasn’t sure about committing to the depressive-malcontent identity. It would take commitment; there were always deeper cuts to go for, bigger transgressions to attempt, especially for a junior-leaguer like me.
 
Plus, I’d seen people’s looks of suspicion when I smoked them at Balderdash; my friends here had cooler things to do than read. Besides, I was pretty certain they knew I wasn’t really one of them.

Nerd camp was different. I hadn’t wanted to go at first -- I wasn’t sure I wanted to identify as one of those Smart Kids. But my best friend had tempted me by name-dropping my obsessions -- “Everyone there has heard of the 'Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy'!” -- and coming home with nerd-rock albums that, even though they were talking about nonsense, somehow spoke to me.

On paper, it was awful. We were in class five hours a day, plus an hour of study hall. We weren’t allowed off-campus on our own, not even to the Turkey Hill. After class we had “mandatory fun,” selecting games or sports or improv -- even in our free time, we were mainly just free to pick approved activities. Lights-out was strictly enforced. For a kid who wasn’t sure she wanted to identify as a nerd, it should have been torture to be trapped in a narrow orbit between class, the dorm and the dining hall.

But as it turned out, being isolated with the dorky kids was the most important thing that ever happened to me.
 
For the first time, the things that had marked me out as peculiar were suddenly cultural touchstones -- they connected me to other people instead of keeping me apart. People shared my tiny obsessions, and shared tiny obsessions of their own. We swapped them like Magic cards: Monty Python for Douglas Adams, B-52s for They Might Be Giants, “Ghostbusters” for “Labyrinth.” We recited “Jabberwocky” in the dining room, a glorious chorus of strange kids speaking strange words as one.

Some people there were even nerdier than me. (I never got that White Wolf thing.) Some people were weirder (I never wore a bathrobe to class). Some people were surely smarter than me, but for once nobody was counting. “Smart” was just assumed; it wasn’t an insult or an expectation.
 
Hanging out with the malcontents, I realized, hadn’t felt natural; I’d been constantly trying to prove my bona fides, lest someone realize that my issues (unlike everyone else’s, I thought) weren’t really romantic. Here, I didn’t have anything to prove.

I don’t want to make it seem like I made a decision in that one summer to never be fucked up again. I was better at existing in the world after nerd camp -- more at ease, more social -- but I still had a chip on my shoulder and, arguably, still do. But having a chance to explore the opposing sides of my emerging personality, and realize that one felt difficult and one felt easy... that felt like an important crossroads.

And this is why I can’t remember Heather’s last name, but I’ve been to four weddings and a funeral with my nerd camp friends. If you find a place, and by extension a part of yourself, where you feel at ease, it keeps shaping you for the rest of your life. Finding it early is a stroke of luck -- a lot of teenagers never get a chance to be somewhere they feel they belong. A lot of adults don’t, either. But once you do, things start to fall into place.