What passes for normal

I had a brief but unsettling encounter with normal children yesterday. That word, normal, looks like it should be in quotes. Maybe it should. And maybe I have no idea what normal looks like.

First, by way of background, I teach at the McNerd Academy of Nerdy Nerds. Not an allegedly normal kid in sight. Even if you spotted someone athletic, straight from a 1950s poster for the All-American type, with preternaturally pale, clear skin and a dazzling, braces-free smile, chances are they’re a panicky mess with a pre-calc final coming up.

At first, the sight of two dozen blond, blue-eyed Aryan prototypes filing into a local Chipotle’s felt like an unexpected treat. What a wholesome group, with all that glowing skin and obvious confidence! The girls and boys were still roughly the same height, so my guess would be 7th or possibly 8th grade. The girls drank fruit smoothies purchased elsewhere. The boys ate burritos as big as their heads. They’d all been stamped from the same preppy, upper-middle-class mold popular here in Scottsdale, mockingly called Snotsdale elsewhere in the valley, apparently with reason.

I was with my son, Seth, also 12, with an IQ of 160, who maintains a 98 average in his Algebra II class, and similarly high marks in biology, chemistry, physics, and Mandarin. Actually, he has a 100 in Mandarin. Did I mention he’s 12? I couldn’t be prouder.

There are multitudes of things my son can’t do, however, and one of them is pass for normal. He’s a wiry mass of brown, coarse hair, brown eyes, knobby knees and a jerkiness to his gait, with no pretense of athletic grace, and the same holey polo shirt we beg him to toss in the laundry already. Even sitting down, an invisible “dork” sign flashes over his head – as it must’ve done for me forty years earlier.

We’d nearly finished our respective suppers – for me, a spicy tofu bowl loaded with fresh salsa, plain beans and rice for Seth – when I excused myself to go to the restroom. I was gone only a couple minutes, but returned to find Seth anxious to leave. Being a Mom, I made him finish and clean up. I refilled my ice tea on the way out. I thought nothing of anything, except noting absent-mindedly that the Aryan Youth had filled every empty spot around our booth, both sitting and standing, with bodies and noise. No big deal. We were leaving anyway.

It is no big deal, right? I read so much online now about white privilege, but I look at my own white students, who comprise a bare majority at our school. Many are first generation Russian or Ukranian immigrants, or from stolid Evangelical stock, proud but working class, or they live far from city limits, raising horses amid the desert scrub – and I don’t see privilege. I don’t see kids who can afford to take anything for granted, or who got something for nothing, and whose daily steps are marked by a certain hesitation, a looming sense that the world is an odd and unforgiving place beyond our protective doors.

Outside Chipotle’s, I joked to Seth that that group of kids inside, while uniformly attractive, would’ve tormented the hell outta me in junior high. Seth lurched toward our car, nodding and flailing his arms in that adorkable way he does.

“They were pointing at me, Mom,” he said. “And they kept saying ‘that kid!’ and laughing.”

Well, there is nothing to be done about that, is there? I lied and said maybe they wanted our table. He saw through that, and said so. We climbed into our battered minivan, a clunky island of rusting metal in a gleaming Lexus-Beamer-Mercedez sea. We were en route back to school for an evening concert, where he is first violin, last row, in the 7th grade orchestra — one of three in our school, so we can fit everyone.

There was only one feeble thing to say at all. Can you imagine, I asked him, having to attend a school filled with such kids? He shook his head.

So we swung the minivan toward our little nerd fortress, where privilege is just another word on the SATs.

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