I have put "the talk" off for as long as I have been able, because it is going to be an uncomfortable conversation. It will be far harder than the "birds and bees" conversation that parents dread. The "birds and bees" conversation, by the way, was fairly painless with my son. He's read enough science books and seen enough stuff on Discovery Channel to know most everything he needs to know about the mechanics of sex. The depth of his knowledge, from a clinical perspective, was impressive when we discussed the topic.
But this next conversation will, I fear, be near impossible for him to understand, and even harder to explain. I am going to have to tell him that he is a geek. And because he is a geek, he is about to be sentenced to seven years of unmitigated hell at the hands of his peers.
The thing that is forcing "the talk" is a question he asked last week. He asked it in the same way he might ask why a gasoline engine has a spark plug while a Diesel engine does not. He's expecting to hear a simple, logical, reasonable answer that tells him something new about the world we live in. But the question he asked has no simple, logical or reasonable answer. Instead, his question probes one of the darkest, and frankly the most repulsive, aspects of the human condition.
His question was this: "Dad, why am I always the last one they pick in PE?"
He asked it with sadness and resignation, as though he already has some sense of the future that will unfold. But I think he asked it more in the form of a question that might have an answer - a problem for which there could be a solution. And unfortunately the solution space is limited here.
So let's back up for a moment. In the United States, the average age for the onset of male puberty is approximately 11.5 years. My son turns 11.5 years old next week. He is in the fifth grade at the local public school.
My son is also a geek. Without question. Like his father at that age, he is small and scrawny and wildly uncoordinated. He is decently intelligent, madly in love with all things scientific, mathematical and technological, but unskilled in most social situations.
I asked him how they select teams in PE. It's the same way they've done it for centuries. The teacher picks two star athletes to be the captains of the two teams, and then they alternately pick their team members one by one.
I am amazed that in this day and age, with all the emphasis on diversity and political correctness and inclusion, that this form of medieval torture would still be allowed. Think about it from the geek perspective. You are standing in a large room with all of your peers. Your peers are picked one by one until you are the last person left on the opposite side of the room. In front of everyone, you stand alone. You are publicly told, in the most visceral way possible, that you are the biggest loser in the class. And an adult authority figure is standing there supervising the proceedings, so it must be right and true. What could possibly be more embarrassing and humiliating for an 11.5-year-old kid than that kind of situation? This process is automatically rigged against all disabled and uncoordinated kids, and the level of public humiliation it inflicts is brutal.
We all know it happens. It is nearly cliche. The persona of Harry Potter is built on the foundation of geek abuse. There are TV shows designed around it, including this one that finally, in a small way, takes the geek's side (although it also shows a problem so severe that it requires professionals to deal with it):
Bullies are evil. The people who surround and empower bullies are worse. Unfortunately, this group is often the majority in a secondary school situation.
On the other hand, the abuse in fifth grade may be helpful. Because this is just the first level of a many-layered hell that the geek endures in Middle and High School. The PE embarrassment festival in fifth grade is an early taste that prepares the geek for the many embarrassments and humiliations that are to follow. If you are not a geek, you have no appreciation for this, but if you are a geek, you are nodding your head in sad affirmation. By age 15 or 16, the pain will be excruciating in comparison to this minor fifth grade stuff.
I mentioned above that this is one of the most repulsive features of the human condition. Why? There are two reasons. First, the abuse of geeks demonstrates that there is a group of people in this world who make it their business to make others miserable. That group first gains significant power as early as Elementary School. They will take that misery as far as they possibly can, and their peers will join in either out of fear or glee or ignorance. A good example of how bad the misery can get is this situation, where a teenage girl eventually committed suicide to escape her peers:
That is not uncommon. And there are legions of kids, both male and female, who feel bad enough to seriously consider suicide because of the actions of their peers.
If you think a little further, you realize that it is this same phenomenon at the root of racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination in general, caste systems, genocide and most of the other human-induced miseries in our world. All of it is completely unnecessary and hopelessly cruel.
Second, there is a group of adults, most likely early members of that same misery-producing group from elementary school, who, given the chance, make it possible for the misery to flourish in school environments. It would be possible for the adults to create a school environment that treated everyone equally (zero tolerance for bullying, zero emphasis on jocks, etc.), or that treated geeks as geniuses and pushed jocks to the background (because the ability to put a ball through a hoop is largely meaningless in today's world). But we do not.
Why would we create an environment that is tuned to make a group of uncoordinated and socially uncomfortable people miserable? Why create an environment that makes anyone miserable? Yet we do it constantly.
The part that is even more bizarre is that it is the geeks who make our modern world possible. Just about any major invention of the modern world - from cell phones to automobiles to sewer systems - was thought up and refined and introduced to the general public through the work of geeks: engineers, scientists, programmers, mathematicians, etc. Why in the world would we crush these people in Middle School and High School? How much would we and they gain if we did not crush them?
But crush them we do, and this is what my son and I will be trying to discuss. We will talk about all kinds of stuff. His path, unfortunately, is centuries old, including the whole PE thing. He will continue to get picked last. He will get hazed in the showers. He will be laughed at and humiliated for every athletic thing he is made to do. How do you talk about that sort of thing? "Well, my son, you have been born into a species that has the potential for so much good, but instead often descends into amazing cruelty. And you, unfortunately, are going to bear the brunt of that cruelty for many years." It will all be intensely embarrassing, yes, but there is absolutely nothing he can do about it.
And it goes well beyond PE. He will be eating alone or with a group of geek outcasts in the cafeteria. People will throw food at him. They will trip him. He will live in constant fear that he might have to use the restroom when other boys are using it, because he knows he will be hazed or worse in that small, enclosed space. He will at least once get stuffed in a locker - possibly many times. He will be rejected by every girl he approaches. As a result there is a high likelihood that he will skip/avoid all dances, including the prom. It's not because he won't want to go. But he will probably realize that it is another opportunity to be publicly humiliated. He will be forced to go to pep rallies and watch sports for which he has absolutely no interest because the whole High School World is geared to Jock culture at most schools.
Think about it: In High School the world divides into two types of people. There is the group for whom puberty is fast acting. They will be, for all practical purposes, adults at age 16 or so. The guys in this group will be shaving twice a day, bulking up as though on steroids, cussing, drinking, fathering children and so on. Levi Johnson and Bristol Palin are the spokespersons for this group. These people will be celebrated.
And then there is the group for whom puberty is slow acting. They won't be shaving until college. They won't be sexually active either, because they will have no choice. No one of the opposite sex will have anything to do with them. They will likely feel intensely uncomfortable and humiliated throughout their teen years.
So my son and I will have "the talk." We will discuss mitigating strategies. Avoidance strategies. Strategies for trying to eliminate or defuse the worst of the hazing and cruelty. Yesterday, for example, he came home in tears because everyone on the bus had ganged up chanting "UNIBROW". He unfortunately has eyebrows that resemble those of Sylar on the show Heroes. Sylar, of course, can eat his tormentors. Geeks generally have to use other techniques in situations like that.
But we will also discuss the silver lining. Although impossible to imagine in high school, it does get better in college because, in general, the geeks get to go to college while the others don't. And then as you exit college it gets better because there are plenty of opportunities for geeks. Geeks have a chance to work in places that are geek-friendly because they are filled with geeks.
The hazing also gives the geek experience in persevering even though there are nay-sayers. It lets you value yourself without the outward acceptance of others, which can increase your independence and drive. I believe there are other systems we could create that would have the same outcome without the pain, but in High School such systems are rare.
The one other thing I will tell him is that when he comes home, he will be accepted here unconditionally, and with love, and celebrated for his geekiness. Because we are a family of geeks. Even though that will be relatively minor consolation when compared to the abuse he is getting from his peers, it will mean something to him. Hopefully it will be enough to keep him from committing suicide.
You may also enjoy this in-depth interview, "Marshall Brain on Singularity 1on1: We're approaching humanity’s make or break period":