Sunday, April 09, 2006

Building Better Geeks Part 2: The Deeper Problem

In Part 1 we established that geek children often appear out-of-step with their age-mates due to "asynchronous learning" when forced into age-segregated environments. But why is it that geek adults often appear confused by and out-of-step with the mainstream? What's with the science fiction, the role-playing games, the comic books, the Ren Faires? Why are they so different from other people?

The truth is that not every geek likes science fiction, role-playing games, comic books, and/or Ren Faires. But there are times when we all feel confused by the dominant culture.

Geeks are not confused about the dominant culture because of where they did or did not go to school. I've met geeks who attended every type of school structure you can imagine, and their confusion cuts across the spectrum. Geeks are often confused about the dominant culture because the internal architecture of their heads does not allow them to see the world the same way other people do, and they miss the connotations that everyone else "knows" to be true.

When I was younger, my geek friends and I would wonder where this seemingly rock-solid certainty our age-mates had about the world came from. We were in class with these kids every day, and we couldn't figure it out. What did they know that we didn't? And who had told them? One guy even wondered if the rest of the school had gone to some secret assembly and been taught all these subjects on some day when he was home sick. But no. It turned out the truth was both simpler and more depressing.

My husband and I had hints over the years, but we got hit over the head with it when I was pregnant with Brighteyes. One day we passed a hand-lettered poster that said "Midwife Conference". We pulled over to see what was going on. We hadn't found any local midwives, and were driving 3 hours each way for appointments at The Farm. The Farm Clinic is the oldest freestanding midwives' clinic and the U.S., and has an unbeaten track record for health and safety. Our experience with them has always been entirely positive, except for that long drive. If there was a closer midwife, we'd like to know about her.

Unfortunately the "conference" turned out to be a recruiting scam put on by an extreme Far-Right Christian group that we later found out was being watched for cult activity. We were shocked but intrigued. What could we learn about how these groups operated? We decided to stay and watch.

It went fine at first. I was obviously in my third trimester and looked like good recruit material at first, so they talked up their group extensively to us. After about an hour and a half though, I slipped up and made a mistake. They were talking about having the only midwife in the area, and I mentioned The Farm Midwives in Summertown.

"Oh, you don't want to go there."

"Why?" I asked without thinking.

Instant silence. Everyone turned to look at me with shocked expressions on their faces, and several people actually took a step away from us. They could not have been more horrified if I had turned green, grown horns and hooves, and started spewing blood. In fact, they would have definitely found that transformation easier to understand.

In that same instant, I knew what the dividing line was between geeks and non-geeks. It was as plain as day, and it had nothing to do with science fiction or Ren Faires. It was this fact: geeks ask questions. Questions about anything and everything. We can't help it. It's hardwired into our brains. And it's a behavior pattern that is not only inexplicable but often frightening to those who don't share it.

(Of course, once you ask questions you begin to look for answers. Sometimes those answers involve science fiction and Ren Faires. Sometimes not.)

For the rest of the "conference" members of the group stayed far away from us. They whispered stories behind our backs about demons who came to Church disguised as humans, sat in the back pews, and subtly corrupted "the magic of the Service" with their foul presence. It was one of the most disturbing experiences of my life.

(I know all Christians aren't like these folks. I did say they were extremists.)

Nonetheless, our fortitude was rewarded by a wealth of insights. One of them was that people who can't or won't ask questions and people who can and will ask questions are often going to find the other group's behavior "weird", confusing, uncomfortable, and somewhat frightening. Years later, I still don't know what to do about this situation. All I know is this: when I see my own wonderful daughters asking questions at the seeming rate of 90/minute, I don't want anyone convincing them that behavior is bad. I don't want to see hoods go down over the lights in their bright, sunny eyes. And that is the ultimate reason I homeschool.

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