When I was 14, someone who was theoretically my friend passed a piece of paper around the class. It had the words “Petition to make Alice shut up” written across the top and an increasingly long list of signatures underneath.
It was the world’s worst register, wholly dedicated to me.
Every now and then I tell this story over dinner with friends and people laugh, because the idea of such petty classroom slacktivism is genuinely quite hilarious and teenagers do cruel, stupid things that prove to be funny in later life. I laugh too. Fortunately my life has improved in the years since then. If someone tried to make a petition about me now, I’d probably feel vaguely honoured and sign it myself under a few different comedy names.
That petition existed because the person who made it didn’t like me very much (shocker!) but, more, as the title would suggest, because I was loud, nerdy and said apparently lame, geeky things that, in adulthood, would probably be seen as assertive and interesting.
The petition failed. I didn’t shut up, and I still haven’t. My mouth still gets me in trouble, but it’s also got me my career and enough money to go and pay for those dinners with friends.
Because, at 14, my career experience was limited to babysitting and a simplistic personality test that suggested I should work in advertising, I didn’t realise that all of the nerdy traits I tried – and evidently failed – to hide on a daily basis would be the ones respected by grown-ups who have the ability to pay you money to do stuff you like doing.
Sometimes girls are told to shrink, although never that explicitly. It comes under the guise of being told to admire the skinny girls, to make less noise, to put up with boys when they’re being boorish and rude, to wear smaller clothes, be more mysterious, to take up less space.
Here are just some of the things about me that I felt ashamed of when I was at school: joining the debating club, using “big words”, doing revision, getting my homework done on time, doing part-time work, making sure there was a plan for the weekend, being keen to sort things out, finding out if people were coming to my birthday party, being organised, being on time, being too loud. Pretty much the standard ingredients of a nerd-flavoured cocktail.
Sometimes I’m still ashamed of those things – but all of them have stood me in really good stead as a grown-up. Here’s how:
Joining the debating club: knowing how to stand my corner, keep my cool and calmly explain why yes, I am right – whether that discussion is with a drunk man heckling me or a colleague.
Using “big words”: hello there, I’m a journalist now. I get paid for deploying these things.
Doing revision: I know how to prepare for everything from a job interview to a presentation at the last minute. Plus it meant I could pass university exams on three hours’ sleep and a hangover.
Getting my homework done: hi again, I’m a journalist. I get paid for writing things very quickly.
Doing part-time work: helped massively with the dawning realisation that sometimes we have to do things we hate in order to afford to eat.
Making sure there was a plan for the weekend: although the organisers of the fun will never be perceived to be as “cool” or “laidback” as those spontaneous types, everybody is grateful to have them around. Plus they organise the fun.
Being keen to sort things out: life is a lot more enjoyable if you can spend as little time as possible on stuff like bills, finding somewhere to live, yadda yadda yawn.
Finding out if people were coming to my birthday party: still a chore as an adult, but people are generally far more polite and excited about it.
Being organised: this is a gift many people struggle to attain.
Being on time: boring, yes, and you’ll spend a lot of time waiting for other people, but you will never* arrive somewhere sweaty and stressed.
Being too loud: literally the only people who think you’re too loud are you, and people who don’t like you enough.
I don’t know who your inner nerd is, but I can guarantee that she’s awesome. Maybe your inner nerd can understand maths like she’s breathing, or is fascinated by how stuff works. Perhaps your inner nerd is incredible at sorting things into rainbow order, or packing loads of stuff into her schoolbag. She might even know all the words to songs nobody else thinks are cool, or has a magical ability to get everyone together in the same place at the same time.
All of these things are as wonderful as the sound you make when you can’t stop laughing, or how you act when you’re with your best friend – even if you don’t think they’re cool. But one day, I promise, they will be, as will your inner nerd. I’d hedge a bet that you’ll be grateful that she’s there.
*I frequently arrive places sweaty and stressed. I wish I was more like 12-year-old me in this respect.
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Image: Manjit Thapp