When I was in elementary school, I only went to the Principal's office once.
I sat in the waiting room, shyly peeking at my unicorn drawing on his door. He'd asked my art teacher for it because it was "really good" and had a "sense of style". I kicked my heavy and weighed down feet, I wore sort of weird dense rubber orthopedic platform shoes my mother insisted I wear to hide and crush down my weirdly long second toes. Was I in trouble?
Finally, I was invited in, and assured I was not there for anything I'd done wrong. No, in fact, it was something very special! The principal handed me a printed chart showing standardized testing scores. He pointed with his pen at where most kids fell, and then the far outlier numbers where my scores fell. I'd scored among the highest in the school! Wasn't that exciting! There was this special program for kids like me, would I like to try it? I could leave classes periodically and take a bus to the high school to try things that would be more challenging!
I was never happy about it, exactly. I didn't feel pride, I was nervous about standing out, and still felt like I was in trouble. My family was very old-fashioned and conservative. I wasn't to spend any of my time on anything that wasn't going to make me a good wife and housekeeper. I was also raised to be a good girl, a quiet girl, a little lady. What if this caused a burden? Extra money? Time?
I agreed, though, because I was 9, and what 9 year old doesn't want to get out of school? What 9 year old being constantly bullied because she was so weird (often called a "geek", and they didn't mean it the way they do now) and defenseless wouldn't want to get out of school? Could I RUN to the special bus? Right now?
The program itself was 3 classes, rotated between weeks. One week would be math, word problems and brain teasers. Another week would be tech, working on computers programing Turtle, trying to learn to type, and trying this Koala Pad thing that let you draw. The other week would be arts and crafts. Aside from a doting grandfather I didn't see nearly often enough (He did dastardly things like bringing me books and art supplies, putting ideas in my head, the troublemaker!), these classes were the first outright approval and compliments I'd gotten about ME - not about how pretty my hair was, how nice my dress was, how quietly and still I would sit in church, but about something inside of me, something going on in my head.
In the art class, I was way ahead of everyone, and my drawing was chosen for the big group project. Everyone had to help me make a life sized 3D paper version of my drawing of a weird flying/monkey/scorpion thing. It didn't matter to anybody else, but I never again paid full attention in the class, because I as busy staring at the completed project on display.
In the tech class, I generally set to work using the Koala Pad to draw unicorns to print out for the principal. I have a feeling this class was less about teaching us, and more about letting us just have our hands all over the technology to discover things.
There was a minuscule sliver of a moment when the pride and attention went to my head. We were in the math class doing word problems. I was almost always the first one to answer and answer correctly. I was smart! I started for a moment to think that could be true. There was a problem up, I'd figured it out and raised my hand. The teacher, in a moment of frustration said "Anyone OTHER than Jade?" I put my hand down. Later, the teacher tried to pull me aside and explain, and only as an adult do I understand that I wasn't giving anyone else a chance, and other kids might have felt intimidated by me. It was hard to blame him. He had no idea what was going on with me at home. He didn't know about the abuse, the stress, the lack of sleep. He didn't know one little thing would lodge into my frail and young brain forever. He didn't know that I needed help, and lots of it. I could only look down at my horrible shoes and try not to cry while he talked.
His apologies were too late, too incomprehensible for a 9 year old. No matter what I knew, or how much I wanted to do something, I never raised my hand again for anything.
I was not being ladylike, I got it, I wouldn't do that again. Hands down, back of the group, back of the classroom, hide hide hide! By the time I got to middle school, they had meetings about me. The genius who was getting A's and testing so well, but was getting well below F's in a lot of classes all of the sudden (Unbeknownst to them, the beatings had started, and went on daily for about 2 years. Some of the worst days were when they called home to ask why I wasn't working harder and living up to my potential.).
I think on some level I'd hoped that being with other smart kids, maybe I'd make friends. I didn't have any. Nobody wanted to talk to the weirdo, and turns out, not even the smart kids wanted to. I had deep, dark circles under my eyes, I was pale and clammy, I had chicken pox scars across my forehead, and I was extremely thin with a popped out belly - I looked like "those Ethiopian kids on TV, but white" according to classmates. Aside from a digestive disorder I still have, I was starving - literally. I was always malnourished and chronically dehydrated in a clinical somebody-get-a-doctor sense. My mother was severely mentally ill, and while she wasn't yet physically abusive while I was in the Special Program, life at home was weird and nonsensical. Nobody knew how to relate to me.
Given the dim bulbs I grew up with, I didn't even know about the culture around a lot of nerds. In my later teens, when I'd ventured out into the world, I started finding nerds. The comic nerds sat me down with their collections and let me read 'til I Flaming Carrot-ed myself. The "novelty" music nerds sang Tom Lehrer and Filk songs until I begged for mercy. The computer nerds showed me how to use the computer to find art, games, and generally the world - I was invited to join in the fun and games the best minds could create. I've always struggled to catch up, to drag together the dusty things my wee brain was onto with what they meant to people who'd been around all of it their whole life without shame.
As a presumed adult now, having gone somewhat far past a tortured and sheltered youth, I have met a LOT of smart people and nerds who have been generous with their passion and their "MY STUFF IS COOL, LET ME SHOW YOU" - and even, on occasion "Let me teach you!". I still get scared, intimidated, unsure of my place, I still struggle with the idea of "deserving" anything. This includes friendship, fun, and input into the goings on of the world and science.
The point of all this? I was one of those Project Challenge sort of kids, and never really what I seemed to be. I have just two things to say to Josh A. Cagan: One, "Hey, kid. Don't go home and watch cartoons. Pull up a beanbag chair and a ream of graph paper." and also, "MY STUFF IS COOL, LET ME SHOW YOU."