High School Revisited
by Esther D. Kustanowitz
October 27, 2006

Back in high school, popularity was a cliche. There were varsity jackets, and even though there were no cheerleaders in yeshiva high schools, there were popular girls who would have seized a set of pompoms were they to be given rabbinic authorization to do so. Academic achievement was a given, but the varsity Jews were our physical elite, admired for rising above the cerebral success so long associated with our people, ascending to a place of physical strength. Even in a school that assigned points for Jewish values, high scores on the court sometimes meant more. Even in yeshiva, the social order followed secular norms: jocks at the top, nerds at the bottom.

In those days, one of the worst things you could call someone was “nerd.” Or “geek.” Or “four-eyes.” Being smart was nerdy enough; knowing how a computer worked was like the social kiss of death. You could use a computer for video games, but with Atari and Nintendo, you had self-contained gaming units; to master Pac-Man or Donkey Kong it was no computer required. And you’d certainly never mention having seen Star Wars 47 times.

Toting hardware used to be a bad thing. (Pocket protector, anyone?) But in 2006, being smart or involved in technology isn’t necessarily unpopular. Sure, high school is probably still a challenge. But today, geeks are role models. They created Windows, revolutionizing the way computers are used. They took “Al Gore’s Internet” and developed a tool that people can’t imagine living without. People live online: instant messaging, e-mailing, downloading, gaming, buying more stuff than anyone could conceivably need at Amazon.com and eBay. Without world nerd-dom, we wouldn’t have file-sharing or iPods.

Today’s pocket protectors are a business must-have–they’re called BlackBerrys. Today, everyone is a nerd at heart. Kids today own their nerdiness in an inspiring and holistic manner. Even cool kids are tech geeks, with their Sidekicks and plasma screens. Bloggers are arguably the most vocal kind of neo-nerd, but they–OK, we– wear the badge proudly, as it conveys a literate, passionate force of the opinionated, the vox populi given a platform. In high school, we might have suffered in silence. But time is the great equalizer. Nowadays, either literally or figuratively, we all wear glasses.

Because things have changed, we should face facts and readjust our expectations. Today, there are many more nerds than jocks, many more geeks than cheerleaders. These facts should provide us with a comfort zone of the cerebral. But anecdotally, experientially and in conversations overheard (OK, eavesdropped on) at Starbucks, our dating expectations are still totally out of whack. Women claim to want smart Jewish guys, but also want them to be strong, tall and non-nerdy. And men, literally sitting at the same table, say “I’ll go out with anyone, as long as she’s hot.”

As adults, we’ve recontextualized our nerdiness as normal. But inside, we’re still the faded remnants of whoever we were in high school, still playing by junior varsity rules. We believe we’re open-minded. But we’re probably not–maybe because we’re socially conditioned to believe that aligning with geeks will drag us back down, while “dating up” grants an all-access pass to communal acceptance. And the message of such an upward socially mobile alliance is recognition by someone “worthy” who sees that we are more than just our labels.

Which, of course, we are. Jewish singles are bodies and brains, hearts and ideas, values, personalities and quirks. Jocks may pick their noses, and cheerleaders may snore unattractively. A guy with a facial scar may not be dangerous, and a woman who’s endlessly peppy may not be happy. Our outsides don’t always match our insides. We’re all walking wounded, containing the shards of our adolescent selves; it’s called baggage because we take it everywhere.

The eternal dating challenge is to seek lasting relationships that elate us but which are still grounded in viable reality. Lowering expectations from “too high” to “reasonable” is not “settling”–it’s “being realistic.” But here’s the rub: Only by accepting ourselves for who we are can we expect the same of others–whoever they were then, or are now. Whatever our outside appearance, we’ve always been who we are. And even if life has transformed us from pimply teens to confident adults, on the inside, we are still us.

Esther D. Kustanowitz has seen Star Wars about 47 times and often wears her glasses.