On the playground of Woodrow Wilson Middle School, Edison, NJ, 7am, 1997:
To be the biggest nerd in middle school sucks. To be the second biggest one is better. But only mildly. Trust me. I know. Your only true friend is the biggest nerd, but your greatest fear is being supplanted by him, of becoming him.
Prakash was Indian, slightly portly, and constantly turned phrases into perverted jokes in order to gain acceptance. Basically me.
But he had a British accent, so as far as I’m concerned, we had nothing in common.
Yet, in the mornings, the playground was where we divided up like various species at a watering hole in the Serengeti. And Prakash and I were often inseparable; playing catch with stuff we found on the ground, currently a dirty tennis ball that the far cooler children had determined no longer useful for wall ball.
Just like our friendship, we’d start friendly, lobbing whatever projectile we found in a lazy arc, smiling as the other displayed a nominal amount of athleticism in catching it. Though our angst and general boyhood would always force our hand as we’d progressively speed up our throws.
Inexorably, we’d wind up whipping whatever we had at the other and shattering whatever flimsy rules comprised this loose game.
Nerds 3-5 were considering joining us somewhere in the middle of this buildup when Prakash went into full whip mode way too early with the dirty tennis ball. The hurl landed a direct hit to my crotch area of my Osh Kosh B’Gosh chinos.
Nerds 3-5 began to laugh, maniacally. I could feel my grip loosening over my Nerd #2 status. The ignominy of running down the tennis ball and continuing the game was too great. I tried to find something that would hurt.
Even in my anger, I knew a rock was excessive and would carry with it serious punishment. A pine cone wouldn’t fly nearly as fast as needed and, when hitting Prakash’s forgiving body, it would bounce off impotently. I kept hunting until I found it.
There it was. Pure.
Its aerodynamics carved over eons of evolution. Simple.
To explain, we have to take a departure, traveling to a WordPress blog I found about trees titled “The Most Dangerous Tree in the Suburbs”
“There was a time not too long ago when the Sweet Gum Tree was a popular choice for suburban yards. It grows relatively fast, has a pleasing symmetrical shape and fabulous fall color . . . In 2012, the Arbor Day Foundation gave out thousands of young Sweet Gum saplings to the children of Springfield, Illinois who eagerly planted them along the sidewalks in front of their homes.
But today, the Sweet Gum has [all but] disappeared. The Sweet Gum’s primary liability, according to the Lazy Landscaper–yes, a real publication–are the thousands of spiny brown seed balls–gum balls if you will–that it casts upon the ground around it. These “hard, brown, spiky balls can create some serious hazards. Not only can they wound you if you slip and fall onto them, they can also roll unexpectedly, causing sprained ankles. And don’t try to run your lawnmower over them, as when airborne they are as dangerous as grenades.”
As dangerous as grenades.
There, at my feet on the playground, was a spiky gum ball for my taking. I lifted it up and clutched it in my hand, evaluating its weight and dimensions.
I looked up at Prakash and the other three nerds. Like a quarterback, pitcher, or Ryu from Street Fighter, I built up a furious amount of potential energy and then unleashed.
The spiky ball raced out faster than anything I’d ever seen, so fast that within milliseconds, I lost the ability to trace its whereabouts. A few seconds passed by and I saw all four nerds looking shocked. Then I heard three clear words cut through the din of the playground.
“What. The. Fuck.”
A tiny pathway opened up and it became clear the words came from Nick.
In my anger, I had hit Nick. The hick.
He was massaging his mullet and staring directly at me. He began walking firmly as I processed what just happened.
Okay, Adi, you just hit Nick the hick. He’s bigger, stronger, and faster than you. He also has been in at least five fights this week. This far outstrips your zero of all time. You need to diffuse this situation. Offer your lunch money. Wait you don’t have lunch money, just some leftover Gujurati food. That will only make him madder. Grovel like a fool.
“I can’t believe that happened, man. Dude. I had no idea–”
He was getting far too close now with no sign of stopping. The crowd around us looks delirious—they won’t accept it ending in a pleasant handshake and a laugh about how sweet gumballs travel way more erratically than one anticipates.
It’s too much attention. We’re going to get into trouble at this rate. All kinds of obscenities are erupting from Nick. Some of them I hadn’t even learnt yet. I can’t handle the pressure.
“Shhh, just shut up. Just shut up!” I plead with him. I don’t want to get into trouble, but it’s too late now. This is happening. We lock horns. The fight begins.
I hold one of his arms. As he uses the other to swing at me, I begin rotating out of his way. This continues three times, four times, and I realize I’m not getting hit, though a little dizzy with all the spinning.
“Gross. Why the hell are you dancing?” is the last thing I hear from a crowd growing very tired of this samba as a couple of hall monitors break up the fight.
Trig, French, and a bunch of other classes I normally delight in now feel like a completely different experience.
“Heard you fought Nick the Hick?” says a girl from my honors classes. Days would pass before I processed that an actual girl spoke to me. In the moment, though, all I can think about is what’s going to happen next.
And then it happens.
“Um, Adi-Taya Surenno-nodon” blares the intercom as if my family lineage could be traced back to the Jurassic period, “please report to the principal’s office.”
Nick is already in the room as I walk in trembling. He looks comfortable, in his element. He’s been here before.
The principal asks me to take a seat.
“How about one of you tells me what happened today morning?”
I look pathetic and terrified. I’m thinking of a way to craft this story in a way that still ensures I will go to Harvard six years from now. I realize that no amount of smarts will help me keep this off my file. I start to shiver. The principal looks at me confused and takes out a tissue box he didn’t expect he’d need for a fight between two teenage boys.
I am about to begin when Nick launches—
“I’m just minding my business, right? Bam! I get hit in the head with this pine cone thing. I turn around and I see this kid looking at me. I walk up to him, right? He doesn’t apologize at all. I say, ‘dude what the fuck’ — sorry Mr. Andrews — I say ‘why did you hit me?’ And then this kid just starts telling me to shut up. Over and over again. Shut up. Just shut up. We were in each other’s faces, so we fought.”
As I go over his story, I realize that nothing he is saying is a lie. Well, other than the fact that it wasn’t a pine cone. I break down crying and grab 1, 2, 3 tissues consecutively.
Harvard is gone.
“I’m supposed to believe that load of horseshit? Someone hit you with a pine cone and so you beat up this nerd?” The principal says as I look up with tears and hope in my eyes.
“You’re getting the usual, Nick. Now both of you out of my office.”
We both step out of the room and I think I’ve made an enemy for life. I immediately look at Nick once we’re in the hall.
“Hey, I’m sorry. So sorry. And I’m sorry that I didn’t apologize before.”
He gives me a look as if a fly was buzzing near his ear. “Dude. Who cares? But why did you cry?”
I would find out that the usual for Nick was 3 days of detention. He was expelled before the end of the year. He didn’t seem to care about the injustice of it all. Meanwhile, I nicked Nick but got away unscathed.
It was a strange feeling, back then, realizing that being a nerd has its privileges. It’s a strange feeling now. I see it everywhere. Staying quiet here. A little lie there. A bit of obscure data analysis explaining why this department needs layoffs. Hiding behind an algorithm to justify why those families no longer have a 401k.
Over the last few months, there’s been a lot of people like Nick that seem at odds with those like us, lots of hurtful words being hurled back and forth. And the gap between us seems to be getting larger every day.
That sweet gum ball was a seed, but I used it as a weapon. That set into motion everything else.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the playground that day, it’s that I can be the most dangerous tree in the suburb, but I’d rather tell stories and make things grow.