Commentary: Coming Out for Nerds and Queers
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Mark Zuckerberg. In part, this is because I recently saw, finally, the fictionalized account of the story of Facebook: “The Social Network,” written by Aaron Sorkin. There’s another reason though, something I recently found out about Zuckerberg: he and I went to camp together. This is not namedropping, or bragging, or trying to create a connection where there is none. Zuckerberg and I didn’t know each other at camp, though looking at Facebook I found that he and I do have two mutual friends from there. I don’t remember him, and he doesn’t remember me. So, yeah, big deal. Who cares?
Let me tell you something about this camp that we went to. It is called CTY. When people ask what CTY stands for, very often those of us who are CTYers will respond Can’t Tell You, and wait to see how long it takes for them to get it. CTY stands for Center for Talented Youth, and is a program created and run by Johns Hopkins for academically gifted kids. In other words, Nerd Camp.
To gain admission to a CTY camp, one must take the SAT and achieve a qualifying score. Qualifying students choose from subjects in the Humanities or Math and Sciences, or both depending on your math and verbal scores. The summer consists of two three-week sessions, during which students take a college-level course in the subject of their choosing. The class periods are five hours a day: three in the morning, two in the afternoon, followed by an activity period, dinner, and then two more hours of study hall.
Many people, upon hearing what the program entails, assume that this is a program that achievement-obsessed parents force their reluctant kids into to get ahead during the summer. They are surprised when I tell them that kids beg to go to CTY, and they beg to go back, and the school year in between is, for many if not most of them, a period which we call “CTY withdrawal” during which friends from CTY are a lifeline for one another, and all anxiously await the day they can “come home to CTY.”
Was this Zuckerberg’s experience at CTY? I do not know. But it was mine… and the experience of hundreds of CTYers and former CTYers I know, and of thousands I haven’t met. Why was, is, the experience of CTY so desperately important to us? Why is it that so many of us talk about CTY saving our lives? Because CTY was coming out.
I don’t mean in terms of sexual orientation, though many do come to acknowledge and embrace their queerness at CTY, but it comes of something more fundamental: CTY was, for many of us, the first place where we were permitted to be ourselves. Here we were, ages 13-16, the kids who did well on tests, the kids who would willingly spend three or six weeks in the summer in a classroom 7 hours every weekday learning a subject voluntarily. Most of the courses didn’t apply toward any sort of high school or college credit, we were just interested. We liked to learn. For most of us, that was something that, back home, people just didn’t get. We came from bullying, from isolation, from desperate loneliness. Some coped by being flamboyant about their nerdity, some by hiding. All of us though, when we got to campus, were free to express our quirks, our interests, our opinions, our minds, our intelligence, without fear. We could be open and honest about who we were, what we liked, what we wanted, how we felt.
I wouldn’t presume to know what Mark Zuckerberg’s psychological motives are in his creation of Facebook, with its mission of “Making the world open and connected,” but I can’t help making the connection between Facebook and CTY. In the days when I was a CTYer, when the internet was still relatively new and largely uncharted, finding people with common interests to befriend meant navigating the anonymous and sometimes sketchy world of Bulletin Boards. Keeping in touch with CTY friends incurred massive phone bills. And finding a CTY friend you’d lost touch with, who had moved or whose number had changed was literally a research project. Facebook has been a big part in changing all of that. We’re no longer groping in the dark looking for each other.
In an interview last year with The New Yorker, Zuckerberg talked about one of the effects of this new openness. “No one has done a study on this, as far as I can tell,” he said, “but I think Facebook might be the first place where a large number of people have come out … I think this is just part of the general trend that we talked about, about society being more open, and I think that’s good.” Facebook asks, when you sign up, “Who are you? What is it that makes you who you are?” I will not try to argue that there is no downside to the openness that Facebook invites of its users… but there was a time for many of us when the world, it seemed, went out of its way to tell us that it didn’t give a damn who we were. When we came to CTY and were finally allowed — no, invited — to tell who we were, when we were asked finally to come out, it was with a tearful sigh of relief that we did.
Mark Zuckerberg lists Ender’s Game on his Facebook profile page as a book he likes. The title character, Ender, a gifted child who is deliberately raised to be isolated and bullied so that he will save the world, makes the following statement in the book “I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.” I think that’s what Zuckerberg really wants to get at. I think it’s what we all want, when we come out.
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