Becoming What You Might Have Been

It's never too late for the truth

I am a secret geek.

Full disclosure: I do not own a pocket saver. My computer skills are elementary. I have never played Dungeons & Dragons.

Despite this, I have also never qualified to sit at the cool girls' table. And now, here in the midst of my life review, I've decided that it's time to come clean and acknowledge the long-suppressed denizen of libraries and old cemeteries, collector of obscure facts, obsessive reader, lover of solitude. The one who preferred dolls to dodgeball, who didn't smoke in high school, who was good at Latin and memorized too much poetry.

I have been a duck in a chicken coop for so long that I hardly remember how to quack. But I have reached the point where quacking is no longer optional. I just wish I hadn't taken so long to get here.

Maybe it's the work of a lifetime. Maybe that's what we're all doing, making our way back to the person we were before people started telling us who we were supposed to be. And when was that, exactly—the unforgiving moment when self-consciousness trumped self-acceptance?

It might have been the first time someone narrowed their eyes at me in disapproval, or looked disparagingly at my shoes or giggled when I raised my hand in class too often.

Maybe it was fourth grade in the posh suburb to which we had just moved and where I, the new girl, was marked the first day as different. Other. Not from here.

In my old school, I was not a geek. I was just a 9-year-old girl who read a lot and wrote stories and made secret bowers in the flowering bushes next to our front porch. No one had told me that I was weird or fanciful or that I had too much imagination for my own good. No one had automatically rejected me because my plaid skirt didn't come from the Old Colony Shop and my sweater was a hand-me-down. All I knew that first day of school was that something was wrong, and that something was me, and if I were to survive in this place, I had better go undercover. Fast.

So I began to disguise my geekiness, to mask it with layers of protective coloration. I lobbied my parents for the right clothes from the right stores and gave the library a wide berth. I stopped raising my hand. I laughed at the cute boys' jokes, funny or not. I gave up dolls.

It was the beginning of a long, complicated masquerade in which "to thine own self be true" sounded like a recipe for social suicide. When fellow geeks approached me, I felt bound to reject them. But the cool girls left me cold. I shuttled uneasily between two worlds, never quite at home in either one.

Then one day I woke up and realized that all the shuttling was exhausting and unnecessary. I wasn't fooling anyone. The people who matter to me had embraced my inner geek long ago.

It's never too late to become what you might have been, wrote George Eliot, a 19th-century geek who lived her own complicated masquerade until she gave up on public opinion and emerged as a major voice in English literature.

I wonder, though, if it is possible to spare the next generation this tortuous path. I watch my grandson, age 4, who is still immune to failure. He plays baseball all day every day, swinging and missing with bright persistence, cheering the one time out of 10 that he connects. No one has told him yet that it's taking too long, or that he should be better at it, or that he doesn't have the right cap. No one has sighed or narrowed their eyes or given up. I pray that by the time they do, he is already so firmly convinced of his value, so sure of his place in the world, that he will simply shrug and keep on swinging.