I remember how it was in third grade, when I wore a pair of trousers to school that had flannel lining which you could see if the cuffs were rolled up, like mine were. I didn't live that down until almost sixth grade, and have never quite shaken the feeling that if I wasn't careful, I might be caught in a fashion mistake and end up being square instead of cool. It didn't help later having a sixth-grade teacher who gave all of us fragile-egoed new middle-schoolers weekly examinations of our color-coordination and hygiene (she checked our fingernails and behind our ears). The ranks were really thin on those inspection days, and it's a wonder that any of us survived her withering critiques.
Today, as we know, those tags of "cool" or "geek," "phat" or "freak," "jock" or "nerd" -- or whatever the terms are that designate what's in and what's out and who has the power of labelling in the pecking order of the schoolyard -- are with us still -- with a vengeance. High schools are seething with feuding factions, as we have seen so tragically in recent years. Even elementary school kids are aware of the importance of having the right stuff, the brand names and objects that give off the glow of status and insulate you from the sharpest beaks.
In some ways it's easier to be cool today than it used to be in the days before television turned the children's product market into a multi-billion dollar industry. Most kids now see thousands of messages every day about how they should look and dress, what they should eat, and say, how they should move their hands and wear their hats, what to listen to and collect, how to spend their leisure time and pocket money. But it's also tougher than ever in these flush years to be one of the kids whose parents can't afford those well-advertised objects of desire -- computer games, unlimited internet access, cell phones, pagers, an allowance that supports endless Pokemon or Barbie or Star Wars action figure acquisition, vacations at theme parks, computer camps, and private coaches to help you with your vocal range or your batting stance.
Young people need to hear that Steven Spielberg, who was making movies since he was a kid, or that Maurice Sendak, who spent most of his free time drawing and reading, were called nerds. And how about Bill Gates? That the nerds will have their revenge and some day run Hollywood and the computer world, that they will become our best writers and artists, scientists and thinkers is little consolation to the kid who has the wrong sneakers and lunch box. But they need to hear it a thousand times a day: follow your bliss, no matter how uncool it is.
Copyright 2004 © John Cech
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