Thursday, October 22, 2009

Michael, the Nerd

This semester I’m taking a couple of electives I really don’t need. Since there are budget cuts across the country, the college has slashed its normal schedule and dumped a bunch of classes. So, for Fall, the pickings were slim, which is why there were nearly 50 people packed into a room built for 25 on the first night of class. It’s a blueprint reading class, which I have always found fascinating, but I’ve also discovered it is the easiest class I have ever taken in my life.

Our first test was a couple of weeks ago. The instructor gave us a photocopy of the side of a house, showing all of the various framing parts, rafters, headers, etc., and we had to fill in the 36 different parts. It was easy, especially since he gave us the very same paper two weeks prior with the parts clearly labeled and the caveat that we will be tested on this very thing without changes. The test took me all of five minutes.

The thing I hate about this particular class is that it is being taken by construction workers. On the first night, we had to each stand up and tell a little bit about ourselves—which is death to me—who cares who anyone is and why they’re there? Well, the majority of the people in the class are in the construction industry, from plumbers to roofers, who have fallen victim to the hard times of the economy and are looking to either change professions within the construction industry or to better their knowledge of their current field so they can advance.

I’m the only architect, but the part I hate is that I think I’m the only one who doesn’t smoke. The classroom smells like a bar. When the instructor calls for a break, the room empties for 15 minutes save for a few souls like myself. When everyone returns, the air conditioner’s filter goes into double-time and I can feel my eyes start to sting. Kara’s complained that I smell like smoke when I come home.

At any rate, I sit there, count the instances the instructor uses the word “okay” and “you understand” thinking I could be elsewhere, just before we have to pile into group work.

One of my biggest anxieties about being with strangers is the moment someone in charge announces that we’ll be doing a lot of group work. I detest group work, and on previous times have related how it is always someone that gets screwed during the assignments. Someone always does the lion’s share of the work, and since I’m not one to hand my fate (and grade) over to a stranger, I’ll step up and take charge. I guess I wouldn’t mind it so much if the instructor created the groups, but they never do. In this case, he counted the number of people in the class (45 on the second night, 20 more than normal, he said) and told us to break up into groups of four to five people.

My stress level rose at that announcement. Acceptance is always a challenge for me. Not really an obstacle, but more of a blockade. I enjoy being accepted by others, and the moment I’m supposed to be placed in with a group of strangers of my own choosing, I have misgivings about myself. I know, it’s stupid and a little pointless, but how am I supposed to pick a group of people. I instantly picture everyone else in evenly numbered groups of four with me the odd man out.

This particular night, I sat in the second row, just to the right of the middle of the class, decidedly one column of desks over from being directly under the video projector that hangs from the ceiling. There are three reasons for this: 1) My angle is just right that nobody blocks my view of the podium where the instructors stand to lecture, and I won’t a head in front of me when a movie or PowerPoint is played—there’s nothing worse than hearing a speaker without seeing him or watching half of a movie; 2) If there’s an earthquake, I won’t be killed by a falling projector (I’m practical that way); and 3) I won’t be responsible for adjusting the volume on said projector. My other class, which meets on Tuesday nights is in this same classroom, and the instructor is admittedly not good with computers. The first movie she played (the computer is hooked up to the projector) had the volume turned up all the way, and since I was sitting right under the projector, she asked me to stand on my chair—in front of everyone like a nude model in art class—and turn it down… I’m just glad I was wearing clean pants. Plus, I was sitting behind a guy with the largest head in the western hemisphere, so I only saw around 30 percent of the screen.

Because of this, I moved over one column for the next class, making this new seat my own, and I get to class early enough that nobody else is ever sitting there. The move put me right behind a chain-smoking ex-Army sniper who roofs houses for a living and is taking this class so his boss “won’t jerk him around.” His words. Really, he’s a nice guy when he’s not talking.

Just after being tossed to the wolves and asked to form our groups, you could feel the thick pall of hesitation among everyone in the class. I mean everyone. I observed it keenly because I am very much in tune to abstract and uncomfortable social situations. Being a people watcher will help you see feelings instantly shared by groups of people.

When the instructor put the period on his sentence, nobody moved a muscle for approximately two seconds. Count that out… one… two… long seconds of silence… Then papers and books rustled and desk legs began to screech on the linoleum tiles.

Who am I supposed to group up with? After the first night of class, I came home just at the kids’ bedtime, so I went upstairs to kiss them good night. Natalie asked me how my class was (we’re kindred spirits because we’re the only ones in the family currently in school—at the time) and if I made any friends. It was cute. She asked me if I liked my teachers and if I had any homework… all things we asked her when she first started school. Well, by the third week of class, I had spoken to exactly zero people, and here I was supposed to integrate myself with three others to form some sort of club for the next 14 weeks.

Luckily, the solution was solved for me seconds after it was presented to me. The ex-sniper turned around and held his hands out to his sides in an exaggerated shrug of his shoulders that said, “You, me, why not?” I answered his silent invitation with a, “at least we won’t have to move our desks.” The guy behind us began to shuffle his desk our way, asking rhetorically, “Mind if I join?” Who were we to say no. “Sure,” the ex-sniper announced, clearly our leader.

And we got a fourth too. The fourth guy didn’t say a word. He just happened to be sitting next to me, and by that very act—contributed by no action of his—he completed a rectangle of desks, making for what could have been a nicely laid-out Bridge game.

The fourth guy—just a kid probably fresh out of high school—turned his desk perpendicular to the column and settled back down into his seat. Thin-framed glasses were perched on a long nose that jutted out from his thin face. He had jet black hair tussled on top of his head, random acne on his cheeks and a turned down mouth. He was skinny to the point of being lanky: all legs and arms with bony hands. He glanced approvingly at his three new compatriots, as the ex-sniper unrolled a multi-page house plan that took up all four of our desks. We huddled over it like we were in an action movie in these plans were our only way out. The spine of the roll faced the kid, and every time the ex-sniper lifted a page to see what was on the next one, instead of rolling against itself (which is what the plans wanted to do) he held it up in front of the kid’s face, which I thought was exceedingly rude.

At the same time, I wasn’t too surprised.

We were supposed to answer about 20 questions based on what we found in the plans, things like locations of junction boxes, the pitch of the roof over the garage and what classification of wood was needed for the floor joists. Some were difficult to find, but since the ex-sniper was a roofer by trade, he had the most experience working with plans. Of course, he seemed that he loved a good tangent too. The guy that was sitting behind me, a Hispanic kid probably around 20, just wanted to get the assignment done. He volunteered to write down the answers to the questions, because it was decided that he had the best penmanship; no, we didn’t test each other for it, we just took each other’s word that each of us wrote like a flailing chicken and he was the lesser of us all.

I don’t remember his name and there’s nothing remarkable about him to give him a nickname here, but he would read the question, the ex-sniper would profess that he knew where the answer would be and he would flip through the pages, making sure to hold them up in front of the kid’s face, per the usual. Even if we found the answer or not, the ex-sniper would drift off on a tangent about something very much unrelated to the current question… or the next question, or any of the questions for that matter.

The question would be “How many anchor bolts are used in the foundation under the kitchen?” and we’d dutifully flip to the appropriate page and the ex-sniper would pour over the drawing, searching for the answer. He looked with his hands, which is especially annoying because he had big hands (roofer, remember?) and nobody could see anything on the page but his giant hands. Then he’d find a tangent. He’d see something on the page that made him think of something completely different, like rafter braces, and then we’d need to find the page that showed us rafter braces.

Since we’re all strangers, nobody can tell him to zip it so we can count anchor bolts in the kitchen. We’ve got to find rafter braces, and when we did, the ex-sniper (and I don’t know how he could have possibly stayed quiet enough to kill anyone) would give us a little lecture on rafter braces. After all, he’s a roofer, right? I could tell the Hispanic kid was reaching the end of his nerves. He wanted to answer the questions, and when we were completely, we could leave for the night… but we couldn’t go anywhere as long as we were talking about rafter braces. He looked at me and barely rolled his eyes without being obvious, and I would announce, “What’s the question again? Oh yes, anchor bolts. What page were they on?” It would get us on track again until something else came along.

Meanwhile, the kid didn’t say a word. The whole time, he didn’t speak, didn’t offer to help with the answers and he only seemed to feign interest in the assignment at all. I didn’t give it much thought. Some people don’t care about things and I figured this kid was someone who would rather be somewhere else and is only going to college after high school because his folks are making him or it seemed like a logical progression in his life. Maybe he was an art major and his enrollment was a mistake, so he’s biding his time until admissions straightens it out. Maybe he’s not even in class at all and just came in off the streets to get warm and be in the company of strangers.

Twice as long as it should have taken, we finished the assignment, passed the paper around the group so everyone could write their name on it, turned it into the instructor and unceremoniously parted for the night. The ex-sniper and I walked to our trucks together (of course he drives a truck… ever see an ex-sniper driving a Prius?), and we absently and uninterestedly talked about guns and the Army. I may have mentioned what I did for a living too; I don’t recall.

The other two guys vanished into the darkness.

I missed the next class because of my hunting trip, but the following week—last week—it was just me and the kid. The Hispanic guy and the ex-sniper were absent, and for some reason, we reviewed the answers to the page we had done two weeks prior. So, our group was two, this kid and me.

I found out his name is Michael, and when I was a senior in high school, he was a newborn baby. It not only made me feel old but it made me wonder at how young he was. I am nearly twice his age, and yet here we were, sitting side-by-side in a temporary building in the corner of a college campus on a Monday night trying to find out the dimensions of a the foundation footing for a recycling center. We sat there for a while, and I started to ask him questions. He seemed perfectly fine sitting in silence, not talking to anyone, not having to engage a stranger such as myself. But when I walked into class that night and saw him sitting at his desk, reading a graphic novel (picture a comic book with a spine) and remembering that he hasn’t said a word in the four weeks I’ve known him, I decided to see what made this kid tick.

Of course, there was no question about it. Michael is the quintessential nerd. Not Anthony Michael Hall nerd from “The Breakfast Club” nor the Robert Carradine nerd from “Revenge of the Nerds” but somewhere in the middle. He had the glasses, the acne, the willowy physique and he even had a slight speech impediment, one similar to Christopher Mintz-Plasse who played McLovin in “SuperBad.” It was slight, some words were slurred and others stumbled upon, almost if he spoke a foreign language primarily…but there was no way this pasty white kid came from anywhere but here.

I went for the obvious, breaking the ice by asking about his graphic novels, and I feigned that I didn’t know what made them different from comic books. He seemed interested in sharing his opinions and how his friends got him interested in reading them a few months ago. When he said he had friends, part of me didn’t believe him, and I expected that next he would tell me he had a girlfriend who was a model who lived in Canada. But then I caught myself… of course he has friends, but it didn’t fit into the box I had already built for him. My quintessential nerd character has no friends, only online associates, and I kicked myself for that one.

After that, talking to him was like pulling teeth. I asked him about what happened the week I missed, and he simply said nothing, as if they all arrived to class and sat staring at the walls for three hours before going home. Nothing. The end. We started to work on the assignment, and he told me several times that he was probably wrong in his answers—which he wasn’t—and that he enjoyed working in the group but was happy to answer the questions without help.

My nerd paradigm I had been building for Michael was falling apart, and then I began to question what really makes up a nerd these days. When I was in school, I’d like to think that we didn’t have nerds at our school, but maybe my memory is selective. I’m sure we did, and I’m sure I brushed onto their fringes from time to time, if not completely falling into their ranks. I didn’t look the part, but I played the role all the same. I studied, followed the rules and got good grades. I didn’t wear fashionable clothes nor was I the captain of the football team… but I was friends with the guy who was. Also, I was friends with those in the audio-video club and I was president of the ecology club… and I was in Key Club, nerdy things all.

When I was a senior, a friend from Boy Scouts, David Phipps, was a freshman. He was a nerd, for certain. He was the quiet engineer type, always working out a problem or inquisitively discovering a solution to something. I liked David a lot (in fact, I just friend requested him on Facebook) as he was always very thoughtful and polite. Michael reminds me of the David I knew back then in a lot of ways.

I don’t know what it is, but my new project is to befriend this kid. He’s got plenty of friends, I know, so I’m merely deluding myself into thinking I’m doing him any good, but he seems like the most interesting person in class. Probably because he doesn’t like to talk to anyone, would rather read a comic book and has very little to add to a group dynamic.

As for the class? I’ll ace it, for sure, so I’m not too worried… after all, at least I know what a rafter brace is, right?

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