Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Part 21, Nerds

kurt_t, not always this cool.
I graduated from Spring Branch Senior High School in 1978, and the school closed in 1983.  As far as I know, our alumni association still sponsors football games. 

Let me tell you something about that.  If you go to a football game where one team consists of guys who graduated high school no later than 1983, that game is going to move kind of slow.  You're going to have plenty of opportunity to move around and mingle and catch up with your friends.

It was a muggy Texas evening in August 2003.  Down on the field at Tully Stadium, the Spring Branch Alumni Bears faced our much sprier arch rival, the Memorial Alumni Mustangs.  I was heading to the snack bar during what felt like the eighteenth timeout of the first quarter, when a blonde in a drill team outfit waved at me so hard her cowboy hat fell off.

"Kurt!" she said.  "Is that you?  Is that really you?!  Git over here!  I got somebody I want you to meet!"

It was my old pal Cindy.  I hadn't seen her since graduation, 25 years before.  The somebody she wanted to meet was her teenager daughter.

"How did you know my mom?" the girl asked me.  "Did you play football?"

Logical assumption.  I'm a big guy, and Cindy knew all the football players because she was on the drill team.  That's why she was there in the stands with the rest of the Bruin Brigade, wearing a blue and white miniskirt and tasseled boots.

"No," I said.  "I didn't play football.  I was a nerd."

Honestly, it was like telling somebody you'd been to Woodstock. 

When did the young people develop this fascination with nerds?  Was the Internet responsible for that?  Or Emo music?  Or Jerry Seinfeld's show?  What turned the corner for nerds?  I never figured it out.

Anyway, when I was in school there was no nerd mystique.  There was no glory in it.  Being a nerd just meant that every day at lunch time you sat at the nerd table in the cafeteria with your nerd peers, who spent a lot of time reading science fiction and discussing political theory.

We were an intellectually curious group.  I suppose that's what set us apart more than anything, our enthusiasm for the free exchange of ideas, all sorts of ideas.  No idea was too outlandish or far fetched for frank and thoughtful consideration.  The nerd clique welcomed Ayn Rand libertarians and crypto-monarchists.  It embraced advocates for space colonization and believers in ancient astronauts and pyramid power.  I think by senior year, the nerd table had given rise to at least five mutually conflicting theories about the ultimate disposition of the Lost Tribes of Israel.

You would think that in such an atmosphere I might have felt comfortable talking to one or more of my nerd friends about my frustration and bewilderment over America's weird cultural attachment to circumcision.  I often wondered if anybody else felt the same way I did.  Why not just ask around?

Well, I kind of did.  Once.  Almost.

Remember Alex Haley wrote a book called Roots that traced his ancestry back to a West African slave named Kunta Kinte?  And remember they turned the book into a miniseries on TV?  That miniseries came out in 1977, during my senior year in high school.

Well, "Roots" was probably the most popular thing that had ever been on TV since Ed Sullivan booked the Beatles.  I mean "Roots" was huge.  Everybody watched it.  White, people, black people.  Everybody watched "Roots."  And that included everybody at Spring Branch High.  Didn't matter if you were a cheerleader or a football player or a nerd.  Didn't matter if you were in the mime troupe or the science club or the Future Farmers of America, you watched "Roots."  It was definitely a cross-clique phenomenon.

It must have been episode one or two where a teenage Kunta Kinte and his friends went through a circumcision ceremony in Africa.  Nothing graphic.  You just see a big dude holding a cutting implement with two blades sticking out of it, and then LeVar Burton grimaces, and half a minute later he's saying something to his buddy like "Didn't hurt nearly as bad as I thought it would."

Well, that scene flooded my mind with new information.  For one thing, I had no idea that any culture practiced circumcision aside from Jews and Americans.  For that matter, it had never occurred to me that non-white people had foreskins.

I know.  Pretty naive, wasn't I?  But remember the first explanation my friends had offered for my missing foreskin?  I wasn't German.  Or I wasn't German enough at any rate.

I think without really thinking about it very deeply, I made a vague connection in my mind between foreskins and European people, just as I made a connection between circumcision and Jewish people and circumcision and white American people.

Who was going to teach me that those connections were oversimplified and imprecise?  My Health teacher?  No.  Health class was mandatory in those days, unless your parents objected on moral or religious grounds, but nobody ever said a thing in Health class about foreskins.  Even when we learned about condoms, nobody told us "If you have a foreskin, be sure to retract it before you put this thing on."

No, I guess if you had a foreskin, you were expected to figure that out on your own.  Health class proceeded as if foreskins didn't exist, as did Biology class, as did History class, as did the entire culture I lived in.

But then right there on national TV in front of millions, "Roots" broke America's conspiracy of silence about foreskins and circumcision.

Well, I decided if Roots could break the conspiracy of silence, I could break the conspiracy of silence.

And what better place to break it than at that most enlightened and cosmopolitan of forums, the nerd table?