Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Dorks

The dorks hang out in a small dining room off the the side of the Las Pecinas cafeteria. At any hour of the day you’ll find them there, filling up the little square tables across from the vending machines—dorks of all shapes and colors and ages and sizes.

It seems as though every table has at least one laptop; more often, there are several competing laptops, their owners conversing over the tops of their unfolded screens. But upon closer inspection one table does not bear a computer. The occupants of this table are spreading a colorful pack of ornate playing cards across its surface like a tarot reading.

They are debating loudly whenever I go in there. Their tone is urgent and impassioned, but I don’t understand what they’re saying. It’s heavy with dork jargon, like, “The way Voltaic Key works with the Phyrexian Colossus is classic,” or “For a good Tank who is watching the mana level of the Healer, it can be even MORE annoying because the DPS getting the group into combat again just further slows down the Healer from regaining mana and allowing the group to move forward with speed.” I sometimes try to memorize snippets of their conversations so I can investigate what it is that they are arguing about, but it’s like trying to recite a sentence in a language you’ve never heard before. By the time I get back to my office, the syllables in my head are all garbled and the words are out of order.

I love the dorks, and these showy debates are one of the main reasons. Las Pecinas is a college, yet the side room is one of the only places where I hear the sounds I associate with college, students obsessed with some intellectual principle, defending it with all the unwarranted zealotry of the newly converted.

I seldom hear this sort of fervor from the student body at large. As I traverse the campus, I pass homogeneous groups of students: three tall boys in basketball jerseys, two white girls in tight leggings and sheepskin boots, four Afghani women in headscarves. What I overhear of their conversations is seldom academic in nature, and never sounds like a debate. They are often talking about their plans for the weekend, whether they will go to the club. Or they are discussing one of their friends: I totally can’t stand her boyfriend! Often what I hear is offensive: What a retard! Dude, that’s so gay. I was like, if you’re not gonna learn English you should just go back to Mexico.

The most academic-sounding discussions I hear are when they assess their classes or teachers: That test was hella hard, or Yeah, my econ teacher’s okay but she’s kind of scattered. The most serious students seem to be accounting their progress through their course requirements: I have two more bio classes to go, and then I can transfer.

The odd times that I pass a student saying something like, I don’t know if I can support socialism, or But are people always entitled to freedom of speech, I want to hug the speaker, even if I disagree entirely with his or her views. You have an opinion, I want to congratulate them! Welcome to college!

It seems that many of the students at my school have some of that high-schoolish distance from what they are learning that is the hallmark of compulsory education. It is no wonder that students sometimes call Las Pecinas thirteenth grade. The students are sweet and earnest and hard-working, but they often seem to regard their courses as a series of hurdles rather than a body of information.

The subjects that the dorks are debating are not usually academic either, other than the occasional snippet of what sounds like computer science. But they are the closest thing that I regularly hear to that impassioned intensity of thought that to me means college.

The very fact that there are dorks, that this social category exists, that they can be located to one corner of the cafeteria, speaks to the high-schoolishness of my college. I always thought one of the best innovations of the transition into college is that the cliquey social distinctions of high school ease up. At a place where everyone is there to learn, ostracizing some people because they are too passionate about knowledge—because they discuss it too loudly, because the knowledge they enjoy is too esoteric—seems declassee.

In fact, it seems that being a dork is the very reason somebody should come to college. Isn’t college a place where people are supposed to care too much—about medieval history, the phonetic system of native African languages, distant corners of the galaxy, particles too small to be seen in a regular microscope? About transcendentalism, existentialism, Sufism, phenomenology? Shouldn’t all of the students be shouting loudly about something no one else understands, making fools of themselves? Shouldn’t the vending machine room extend beyond the walls of the cafeteria, through the library and the classrooms and the quads and the parking lots, to every place where there are college students?


brain said...

re: shouting and being ostracized for caring about something -

I was with a large group of people I didn't know very well. We were nearly all college graduates.

At one point a guy who I had already labelled in my head "kind of a brah" (a frat guy) loudly made fun of a conversation we were having, implicitly calling attention to what a loser I was for knowing something.

So I went completely postal. I was definitely overreacting but my nerd-rage has found new expression over ten years after I graduated college, and my tolerance is much lower, probably due to low exposure.

I congratulated him on being so relentlessly ignorant, and asked him wasn't he getting tired of being so stupid all the time? How's that working out for you? Isn't it amazing how everyone seems to actually care about things and how somehow, magically, have finished novels and films and are busy being executives and software architects, while you still are stuck in the world of "it's Friday! let's go get hot wings at Hooters" ? It must be witchcraft or something! Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son. Why don't you reduce your carbon footprint by putting a plastic bag over your head?!

Anyway that is a tiny portion of my barking from that day. And the point of this story is I drink way too much coffee.

Ted said...

Voltaic Key with Phyrexian Collosus really is a pretty potent combination.

I like to think that over time, people kind of round out their interests. The dorks start talking and caring about their social lives and having things to say about their friends and feelings. The social kids start having conversations about politics and science. And so on.

At least, that's how it worked for me. Of course, when I was a freshman in college, we had Power Artifact/Grim Monolith, and Time Vault/Voltaic Key.

Karin Spirn said...

Brain, that is a great story. I may have to bust that rant out next time a student complains that we are "reading too much" into a novel or that he "can't relate" to an article we're reading.

Ted, you're right as usual, which probably explains why the older/returning students are so damn cool.

I was thinking I need some guest essayists--you both should write something!

Melinda said...

Brain, that story reminds me just a little of a line from David Sedaris' Christmas story, where he works as an elf at Macy's.

An angry customer gets in his face and says, "I'm gonna get you fired."

Sedaris thinks, "I'm gonna have you killed."

But how did the brah react to your diatribe?

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