The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth
At what age do more people than ever feel most like outsiders, not fitting in with the ‘popular’ crowd? In your teens, of course.
Alexandra Robbins not only recognises this fact, but explains it in this beautifully written, highly empathetic book for anyone who felt left out or bullied at school.
Robbins puts forward what she calls ‘Quirk Theory’:
“Quirk Theory: Many of the differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the same traits or real-world skills that others will value, love, respect or find compelling about that person in adulthood and outside of the school setting.”
Schools, Robbins points out, demand conformity and punish those who do not comply. Both teachers and students enforce the unspoken rules. Everyone knows who is popular, who is not, what popular kids say and wear and who they hang out with.
And yet, says Robbins, “Descend to the plane where beneath the gridded, rigid hallways of robotic social hierarchy runs a parallel labyrinth humming with a current of new ideas, alternative philosophies, and refreshing points of view. Here is where you’ll find the people who are brave enough to be true to themselves, where you’ll encounter the interesting and innovative minds that eventually will dive the engines of creativity and progress.”
Rather than just asserting that these original minds exist, Robbins introduces us to a number of them. We follow seven main characters – real people, not fictional constructs – for a year of their high school lives. And Robbins also shares snippets of the stories of other students – some of the hundreds that she interviewed for the book.
They are a diverse group – with a mix of geographic location, culture, sexuality, intelligence and interests. All are courageous in the face of their exclusion. All deserve better and we cannot help but root for them as they develop new connections and start to be recognised for their strengths.
This is a deeply empathetic book. Robbins captures her subjects’ lives without being patronising or over-simplifying. She cares for them, but does not sentimentalise them. She helps us to share their struggles and trials, their joys and triumphs. She gives us a doorway into the thinking of each one, without judgement.
However small or insignificant the events in each person’s life, if they matter to that person, they matter to us, the reader.
The book is all the more powerful because Robbins is so insightful about what it is like to feel like an outsider. Her characters are, on the one hand, diverse.
On the other hand, they struggle with the same kinds of challenges. They feel unheard or misunderstood. They are judged on a stereotype of themselves – the label they have been given, not who they truly are. They are bullied by their peers or those in authority. They are excluded from activities and groups of friends. They are subject to arbitrary standards that fit only a few. They often retreat into themselves for safety, but do best when they find others who are willing to connect.
Robbins insight is based not only on her interviews with many students, but on the huge amount of psychology research she has read. The personal stories are interspersed with details of studies that explain how groups operate, what leads people to conform, the link between popularity and aggression, why belonging is so important and how people get stereotyped.
But Robbins avoids making her book feel hard work. The research is woven into her commentary, which in turn is woven into the flow of her characters’ experiences. She takes us through the argument with the kind of ease that belies the amount of work that must have gone into making her writing so transparent.
The effect of this all is one of the most moving, insightful and encouraging books I have had the pleasure to read. The response of teachers and students across the US (where the book is best known) is testament to this. Geeks is both a New York Times Bestseller and won the Goodreads award for the best non-fiction book.
The best compliment I can give – this is the book I would most love to have written. It shines a light on what it is to be an outsider, without caricature or over-simplification.
Simply, one of the best books for outsiders (and for high school students, their teachers and parents) ever written.
Devi Clark is Founder and Editor at the Outsiders’ Network. Devi is a greeat believer in what people are capable of, with courage, connection and determinsation. Devi coaches careers changers who want a meaningful ethical career at NewLeaf Coaching and is the licencee and curator for TEDxAylesbury.