They are the brainiacs zapping fruit flies with different types of radiation for their science fair projects. They are the Comic-Con superfans hand-sewing their costumes on weekends. They are the bookworms who come off as antisocial until you ask them what they've read lately. They know perfectly well what's trending but don’t waste any brain cells worrying about it — they have their own interests, thank you very much, none of which cater to conformity.
They are the quirky kids — and I adore them.
My son Lucas is a quirky kid. He’d probably scrunch his face up in the classic 13-year-old’s ew-mom-you’re-so-weird-and-embarrassing expression upon hearing me use that label, and he can throw it away if he wants to, but I mean it in the most affectionate, proud, mama-bear way. Lucas has always eschewed the beaten path. He’s never been interested in doing what everyone else is doing. We tried putting him in soccer when he was younger like the other parents were doing, but he wasn’t feeling it. Or any sport, for that matter. He’ll mess around, scrimmage a bit, and he’ll watch games with his dad sometimes, but he’ll bluntly tell you sports really aren’t his thing.
I tried buying him a brand of jeans I’d seen other kids his age wearing, but he refused to wear them. He said they were too stiff, he just wants the stretchy soft kind. He keeps wearing these old ones he says are comfortable, even though the hems end a solid two inches above the tops of his shoes. He is perfectly able to see that no one else’s pants show as much ankle as his do, but he simply doesn’t care. He likes what he likes, dammit.
He poo-poos over-played pop music and insists that rock music is where it’s at. He plays electric guitar, and his current favorite song to rock out on is “Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra — a hit from 1977. He’s a Potterhead, knows all the lyrics to Hamilton, has memorized an astonishing amount of Marvel Universe trivia, and his favorite subjects to talk about are physics and the universe.
I am positively delighted by all these “quirky” traits about my son, but I’ve also been present when Lucas has flown off on a tangent about string theory in front of a group of kids his age and they’ve exchanged covert “WTF” looks. I know he’s been teased in gym before. I worry he may get picked on about his clothes like I once was. I worry his pushy, debate-loving side may piss off potential friends instead of endearing him to them. I worry he’ll be excluded or bullied.
What I didn’t know back then, what I couldn’t know because I was still too caught up in my own fear of rejection, is that plenty of kids I went to school with gave zero sh*ts about being popular.
Lucas is nothing like the child I conjured in my imagination when I was younger and dreamed of having kids one day. Back then, I hoped my children would be popular. I hoped they would be beautiful, stylish, and sporty, part of that cool clique at school that every other kid either openly or secretly yearns to be part of.
I’m ashamed that I ever thought this way, but I understand where my young, wisdomless self was coming from. I simply wanted my future imaginary children to be free from the teasing and exclusion I experienced because of my second-hand clothes and upper-back acne (kids are so mean! And why did I wear my hair up with that sweater?).
What I didn’t know back then, what I couldn’t know because I was still too caught up in my own fear of rejection, is that plenty of kids I went to school with gave zero sh*ts about being popular. They went about their business perfectly happily, having extricated themselves from the meaningless pursuit of social climbing. I noticed the quirky kids, the “nerds,” but I assumed they must simply be confused about how things worked. I dreamed of giving them makeovers. I was so self-absorbed, so painfully aware of my own (lack of) social status that I couldn’t imagine they could possibly be happy existing on the fringe.
I feel sad for young me, wasting so much time worrying about what everyone else thought. How tragic for that girl, that she couldn’t comprehend the epicness of fuck-off-if-you-don’t-like-me individuality. How sad that she couldn’t understand that achieving social status via conformity means giving up or hiding some of the realest parts of yourself.
But how fortunate for current me that I get to have the privilege of being taught lessons in the beauty of individuality and nonconformity by my son. He certainly isn’t friendless. That’s the funny thing about shunning the status quo; when you do it, you attract others who do it too. My son’s friend group is made up of some of the coolest (quirky) kids I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.
Like Lucas, these kids carve their own paths. Unique, bright, silly, and kind, they are always ready to be the upstander. They are wise beyond their years and accepting beyond the capacity of most adults I know. They are always up for learning new things, always ready for challenge and adventure. And thank goodness for them, because they are the best friends my (quirky) son has ever had.