And I thought I looked awesome in this photo.

Growing up, there are 3 caste systems a kid can belong to that widely set into motion their entire world view and future path:

  • At the top caste sit the popular kids. They are usually good looking, shiny, and masters of exclusion.
  • In the middle caste sits the invisible kids. These are the people who, when someone says “do you remember Dustin Willers from 3rd grade?”, you reply “No, who the hell was that?”.
  • And at the very bottom, the Lowest-of-the-Low, sits the Nerds, Freaks, and Geeks. These kids are equally memorable to the popular kids, because they dressed and/or behaved strangely, walked around with a chip on their shoulders, and often sported doctor-prescribed hardware (glasses, mouth gear, leg braces, etc.).

I’m sure I would have been a shoo-in to the popular group had it not been for that one day when my Mom took me to the eye doctor. That bastard diagnosed me with a nasty astigmatism and prescribed me a ticket to the nerd caste for the rest of my scholastic life. Meaning — he forced me to wear bottle-cap glasses, the ultimate nail in the nerd coffin.

Lord help this child.

Everything was a downward spiral from there. Without the glasses, I couldn’t see. Yet with the glasses, my classmates couldn’t see how insanely cool I was.

I’m gonna be a Princess!

Social feedback is a powerful sculptor. Those bottle-cap glasses meant that I was relegated to nerd-dom, which meant I was devoid a social life and had no choice but to become “a person of substance”.

While the popular kids went to parties, and presumably made out with each other under bleachers as portrayed in John Hughes movies, I spent my time writing essays, practicing multiplication tables, entering science contests, composing piano songs, attending advanced-level math classes, studying Jackson Pollock paintings, and falling in love with Hemingway.

In retrospect, I’m of course glad I had no choice but to develop substance. But for a period of time, I wanted nothing more than to be cool.

But here’s the hard lesson about the lowest caste — it doesn’t afford mobility. Once you’re in it, you are pretty much stuck.

And I had to learn this the painful way.

In 6th grade, I developed a massive crush on Steven Bell, the popular 8th Grader who was Goth before it was a thing. Steven had one of those haircuts where it was short in the back, but long in the front, and he would continuously whip his hair out of his eyes as all the girls swooned.

He’s so…misunderstood.

I’d joined our Catholic School’s basketball team, even though I was terrible. But I knew Steven went to the games, and figured if I could impress him with my moves, he might just ask me out, despite my glasses. And that would be my express ticket to the popular caste.

The big game was coming up, and my Coach told me that instead of my normal position on the bench, he was going to put me in the game (the actual game!) for a few minutes. I shook in anticipation, as I looked to the bleachers and saw Steven sitting there with his friends. Staring at him through my bottle cap glasses, I just knew that we were meant to be.

“Christen, stop daydreaming. You’re up — get on the court!”, Coach shouted.

I ran out to join my teammates, my arms flailing, my legs shuffling, ready to show Steven what he was missing. We ran up and down the court, and I waited for my moment, but no one would pass the ball to me.

I looked up at Steven again, and then noticed the game clock. We had 60 seconds left. My moment was dwindling.

I locked eyes with my point guard, but then I turned in the opposite direction. And just then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her pass me the ball.

The ball moved in space, as it hurled toward me in slow motion.

“This is my chance”, I thought. “This is it.”

I put out my arms, pivoted my feet, and whipped my head toward the ball.

Just then, I saw my bottle cap glasses launch off the bridge of my nose, hurtle in the air, hit the floor, and then reach a speed of at least 30 mph as they slid across the court and clear under the bleachers.

In shock, my arms fell limp. The ball hit my chest and landed on the floor with a deafening thud.

The referee blew his whistle. “We got this girl’s glasses under the bleachers”, he yelled, his voice filling the auditorium. “Everyone, can you look for them?”

I froze. Mortified. All the parents got up from their seats, and started crawling under the bleachers, searching for my bottle cap glasses as the entire auditorium watched.

And then I remembered. Steven Bell.

I turned my eyes upwards to where he was sitting. He was hysterically laughing while his friends pointed to me in ridicule.

25 years later, I find myself still surrounded by nerds. In a perfect John Hughes ending, I wound up in Silicon Valley, surrounded by others who like me were the freaks, geeks, and nerds in school. As it turned out, being in the “lowest of the low” caste as a child gave me a world view and future path that I feel infinitely grateful for.

Granted, I no longer have bottle cap glasses and in my college years I shed a lot of the visual accoutrements of nerd-dom.

But what I haven’t lost is what’s most important — a deep connection to the misfits and outcasts who were never cool as kids, but now — in a twist of irony — are shaping a future that looks really freakin’ cool.

My name is Christen, and I am part of the Nerd, Freak, and Geek caste.

And this time, I have no desire to be anywhere else but here.