Nerdiness Is in the Eye of the Beholder

By Scene And Heard
Sunday, June 7, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, we asked you to finish the sentence, "You know you're a nerd when . . . " Anthony Harris had this to say:

Nerdy.

Who's a nerd?

That's relative, and in my view, not particularly relevant, especially in black Chicago in the 1970s.

It's March 1974. On our way downtown to celebrate the end of quarter exams, Calvin 6X asks me to stop by his mother's place. In return, he'll pay for dinner. Deal!

We're first-year students at the University of Chicago Law School, but we don't look it.

Calvin's a former varsity football player. At 6 feet, 210 pounds, he's not that large, but then, 35 years ago, few star linemen at Amherst were big men. An ahead-of-his-time vegetarian, Calvin doesn't drink, smoke, swear or do drugs. He's in his 20s but routinely shaves his head a decade before Michael Jordan popularized the look. Imagine a young, bald-headed Randy Jackson, and you've got Calvin pegged.

Is Calvin a nerd? Well, he loves board games, especially Stratego and Risk, and -- I still can't believe it -- Simon and Garfunkel. (No, if you're black, it's never fly to prefer them over Motown, Stax or jazz.) And Calvin wears gold wire-rim spectacles, then a nerd calling card.

Except Gandhi also wore wire rims, and he wasn't a nerd, was he?

Calvin's an activist, a member of the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim. And in some quarters of the black community on the South Side of Chicago in the 1970s, that was ├╝bercool.

Me? I'm five inches shorter and 85 pounds lighter than Calvin, and I enjoy needling him about his politics. I could be a Sly Stone groupie, a Woodstock refugee -- huge Afro, scruffy beard, faded jeans and Earth shoes -- driving an old VW Beetle. I tune the radio to the soul station, turn the volume up high to irritate (and educate) Calvin. But I clean up well. Sometimes during the summer, I shave, slip on my black leather jacket and slacks, walk to the Hyde Park Baskin-Robbins and waltz to the front of the block-long line, pretending I'm a member of Jesse Jackson's cool entourage that drops by for ice cream after Sunday church. That ruse always works.

Am I a nerd? I could never dance; I have no musical talent. Like Calvin, I don't drink, smoke or do drugs. I swear often, though rarely effectively, because, as Calvin puts it, I sound "too proper," "too white." Oh, and I can't fight. At least, not with my fists.


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