Among the courses I teach at Milwaukee School of Engineering is speech. It's a class of mostly freshmen, but by the spring term they are college veterans, used to the pace and structure of university life. Some of my current speech students were also in my writing classes last fall, giving me the privilege of seeing the personal and academic growth that can happen in the span of a few short months.
I've been trying to put my finger on what it is that I love so much about teaching speech to these young adults, why I leave the class with a smile on my face and am energized by the students' presence, especially when they are engaged in the challenging and often anxiety-producing act of public speaking (which, by the way, I find very difficult to grade).
The answer came from an unlikely source: actor, writer and father, Wil Wheaton.
Wil Wheaton is known to many for his roles in such movies and television series as Stand By Me, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Guild, and The Big Bang Theory. He is also a self-proclaimed professional nerd. In a recent panel discussion at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, an audience member asked Mr. Wheaton to tell her infant daughter why it is "awesome to be a nerd." This led to his impromptu advice to a newborn nerd (view it here or scroll to the bottom of this post).
He nailed it. The real secret—the "defining characteristic"—of being a nerd is not test scores or college acceptances. It is "love of things" and sharing the joy of that love with others. Here is some of what he said:
"For me, when I was growing up, being a nerd meant that I liked things that were a little weird, that took a lot of effort to appreciate and understand. It meant that I loved science, and I loved playing board games, and reading books, and really understanding what went on in the world instead of just kind of riding the planet for space."
"It's not about what you love. it's about how you love it."
"There's going to be a thing in your life that you love, and I don't know what it's going to be... It doesn't matter what it is. The way you love it, and the way that you find other people who love it the way you do is what makes being a nerd being awesome."
"Don't ever let anybody tell you that that thing that you love, is a thing that you can't love."
"You find the things that you love, and you love them the most that you can."
"I want you to be honest, honorable, kind. I want you to work hard, because everything worth doing is hard. And I want you to be awesome."
In my own journey to understand gifted children and how to support them, both at school and at home, I've found nothing that captures the essence of giftedness better. It also explains the reaction I have to my students' speeches. They have a lot of freedom to choose their own topics, and this spring I've learned about their interests in everything from the science of Neil deGrasse Tyson to Neil Patrick Harris's Bro Code, from the mystery of Homo floresiensis to how to tie a necktie without using a mirror, from why quiet matters to the amazing intelligence of dolphins.
What nearly all of the presentations share is the “love of things” that Wil Wheaton describes. It’s more than that, of course. It’s a love of ideas and a love of learning, which, ultimately, is a love of life itself.
Love of learning is a phrase thrown around so much that we hardly know what it means. Passion comes close, but talking about passion can easily lead us to the idea of finding one’s passion for a specific career. While imporant, that is different. The love of things that Wheaton described goes beyond aptitude tests or college majors, although it can inform both.
Of course, this love is nearly impossible to assess. My experience is that it can get in the way of high grades as often as it leads to them, even at the college level. It doesn’t fit neatly on a résumé, nor is it easy to describe on an application.
But we know it when we we see it. And we know it when we feel it in ourselves. Bruce E. Kline and Elizabeth A. Meckstroth put it this way in their article, “Understanding and Encouraging the Exceptionally Gifted”: “Nearly everything matters, and it matters that it matters.” Nerds don't do nonchalance, and they don't fake it well.
This unabashed engagement with the particulars of life can give life itself meaning, especially when we find others who love what we do. The important and often challenging part is making sure that we don’t lose this love somewhere along the way and that we model it for the young people in our lives.
What allows your children or students or yourself to continue to love life and its things and ideas, even when there is pressure to pretend otherwise?
Photo made available by Zawezome under a Creative Commons License.