We were out celebrating my father’s fiftieth birthday when my older sister Tina turned to me and said,
“Elna, do you remember nerd day?”
I stared at her blankly, Nerd day, Nerd day, I thought, trying to place it. Oh my goodness, I began. I had heard of people repressing memories, but I’d never realized… I was one of them.
In order to understand nerd day, you have to first understand this: as a child, I led a double life. At home I was loud, funny and boisterous, at school I was a painfully self-conscious. I’d think about running across the playground, and immediately my mind would counter, you’ll fall on your face, your skirt will flip up, your underwear will have a stain. And so, to avoid potential humiliations, I decided to be invisible.
There was only one thing that interfered with this: my father—an exuberant, hot-blooded Latino. He could get me excited over just about anything.
I’d come home with a homework assignment, intent on doing just the bare minimum, when my dad would get involved. He’d think of an idea, and then I’d think of an idea, and the assignment would get bigger and more exciting. Before I knew it I was turning in creative projects. This meant: attention. There were gold-starred Elna assignments hung on the wall at my classroom. To my horror, I was being used as the class example. By the time I reached second grade I decided I’d had enough. It happened when I was given an assignment to bring in an object to demonstrate how a pulley worked. It was just the kind of project my father loved—it gave him an excuse to use power tools. He started to brainstorm. “What’s the coolest thing you can think of that has a pulley?”
“I don’t know, a flag pole?” I answered, trying not to care.
“A flagpole?” My dad gave me a look that said, you’re a creative genius and all you can think of is a flagpole?
He was right; I could do better.
“A bicycle wheel.”
He wasn’t impressed.
“Or a pulley on a bucket that goes down in a wishing well,” I offered.
That’s more like it. My dad’s eyes sparkled and he started rubbing his hands together. I could hear the friction. I loved it when he got this way, totally focused, like a kid with a new toy. I forgot all about playing it cool.
A half-hour later, we were at the junk yard, hauling a large barrel into the back of the van. We stayed up way past my bedtime building an arch above the barrel with 2x4s, and then attaching a rope, a pulley and a bucket.
The next day we rolled our creation through the classroom door. When they saw my father, the kids perked up in their seats. Even Mrs. Fenton, my teacher, who must have seen my dad as a cute 29 year-old guy and not as my father, fawned all over him. “I just love Elna’s work,” she said, like I was a renowned artist.
But the minute he left, the energy changed: everyone (except Mrs. Fenton) hated me. I tried to figure out what I’d done wrong. That’s when I looked at their desks. Every single kid had a pencil with a string tied to it as their pulley demonstration. And I, I had a full-on wishing well. Oh no. I’d inadvertently broken one of the sacred rules of being cool: I was the kid who looked like she really wanted to do her homework.
This was the end of my homework love affair with my father. From that moment on when he asked me if I had any projects, I just said no.
I rigorously maintained this stance for months, keeping all my assignments and school activities to myself. But towards the end the end of the year Mrs. Fenton announced that we would be having school spirit week. She gave us a memo to take home to our parents that explained what we needed to do. I understood that this had all the makings of an Elna-Dad project, so I threw my memo away. Tina, not so smart, walked right up to my dad and handed the memo to him. That weekend, my father gathered Tina and me around him. The first day of school spirit week was Nerd Day.
“What makes a good nerd?” he asked.
I looked down at my sneakers, avoiding the conversation.
“Nerds wear glasses,” Tina suggested.
“Nice,” my dad beamed.
“And nerds tuck in their shirts,” she added.
“And nerds…” she paused, “nerds are nice people, but people tease them, and they shouldn’t.”
I rolled my eyes. Tina was clearly not the right person for the job. “Nerds have slicked back hair,” I blurted out. “They wear pens in their pockets, and they have pimples, and they don’t just wear glasses—they wear broken glasses with tape in the middle.”
“Good,” my dad said, “but you forgot the most important thing: nerds have toilet paper hanging out of their underwear!” For some reason we thought this was hi-larious.
My dad told us to follow him out to the garage, where he unveiled an old trunk. He reached inside and pulled out two old suits from the seventies, one polyester baby-blue and the other pastel orange.
“Try these on.”
We crawled into the suits. The pants had to be tied on with a rope, and the sleeves hung down way past our arms. My father spun us in circles. “Nerds!” he shouted.
“Nerds!” Tina and I cried, with our arms raised high above our heads.
We found two pairs of old safety glasses and taped the bridges. We drew pimples on our faces, we slicked our hair back, and we stuck toilet paper out of the backs of our underpants. We were the best nerds ever.
Monday rolled around. Our nerd outfits were set up on the carpet beside our beds. When our alarm clock went off, Tina and I began the time-consuming process of replicating our “nerd” look. Half an hour later we were ready to go…glasses, check; hair gel, check; pimples, check; toilet paper, check.
My father drove us to school. When he dropped us off in the school parking lot he took one final look at us and called out the window, “Nerds!”
We threw our arms in the air. “Nerds!” we shouted. My father drove off honking the Pee-Wee Herman theme song. We watched the mini-van shrink as he drove further and further away, and we kept waving just in case he looked back.
When Tina and I finally turned around, the entire school—the kindergarten line, the second grade line, the fifth grade line, everyone— was staring. The first thing that I thought was, “Why are they pointing at us?” Followed by, “Why is no one else dressed up?”
As it turned out, it wasn’t Nerd Day. It wasn’t even school spirit week. My father had misread the memo. He had dressed us up as nerds a whole week early. And you know that dream where you show up to school naked and everyone is staring at you? It turns out it’s just as bad to show up to school dressed as a nerd from the 1970’s.
It was a defining moment for me, worse than any hypothetical I could’ve imagined—All I wanted was to be invisible. Instead, I was highlighter orange. I tried to undo it as best as I could. I took off my glasses, wiped my face, wet my hair, and removed the toilet paper. But there was still no way to explain why I chose to wear my father’s old suit to school.
I made it through the first half of the day by ignoring the staring and whispering. But when it came time for lunch, I knew I had to find a place to hide. I figured the less people saw of me, the better; as it stood my reputation would probably take years to recover. So I took my sack lunch and headed for a place behind the gym that I knew would be deserted. I turned the corner. Sitting against the wall, wearing a baby-blue suit, eating her lunch alone, was my older sister.
“Do you remember nerd day?” Tina repeated. I looked across the room and watched my dad attach three birthday hats to his head.
“Yes,” I said, “How could I forget.”