1. DAWN OF THE DORK
"Yo no soy marinero! Yo no soy marinero! Soy capitan! Soy capitan! Soy capitan! Bamba bamba! Bamba bamba! Bamba bamba!"
Fourteen-year-old Jon Finkel rocked inside his Lilliputian chair in the back of the classroom, singing at the top of his lungs. As his gelatinous body swayed, his bottom roll of stomach fat bulged under the desk's Juicy Fruit stalactites. A black stained Phillies T-shirt flapped over his loose jeans. His long tangled hair curled like a roller coaster into what he affectionately termed his "Jewfro." An enormous pair of square glasses slipped down a long, large nose that bent in the middle like it was perpetually ducking a punch. His eyes were two frantic bugs sealed in novelty ice cubes.
As he hit the last note of the song, he pushed his glasses back into place and raised his flabby arms in the air with a triumphant "Hey!" But no applause came. This wasn't music class. It was geography. And by the looks of the bored, pencil-chewing students around him, this strange and unprovoked burst of song was nothing unusual. Finkel, the biggest loser in school, was just being Finkel again.
In the social hierarchy of eighth grade at Park Middle School in Fanwood, New Jersey, in 1992, Finkel was anything but a high roller. Here, as in most schools, there were two ways for a boy to be an outcast. You could be smart. Or you could be weird. If you were dumb and normal, that was fine, particularly if you could hit a ball far with a stick. Finkel embodied the worst of both worlds: he was both smart and weird.
Naturally, the kids hated him.
Finkel's unique and stubborn smarts ran in the family. His dad, Mark, a computer analyst, was a headstrong and liberal math nerd who made a career out of speaking his mind. While working as a cryptographer for the National Security Agency, he spoke out loudly against the Vietnam war. When he lost his security clearance for smoking pot, he got drafted-only to declare himself a conscientious objector.
While working as a VISTA volunteer, a community service group, in Brockport, New York, Mark met Claire Byrne, an elementary school teacher who had dropped out of a different institution: the convent. After six years studying to be a nun, Claire decided her faith wasn't strong enough to inspire a lifetime vow. She wanted something new. She found it in Mark, an argumentative Jew from Philadelphia. The two married, and two days after their first child was born on May 18, 1978, Claire and the boy converted to Judaism.
After moving to New Jersey, where Mark got a job as a computer analyst with the British Oxygen Company, the Finkels nurtured the exceptional intellects of Jon and his new baby sister, Jenny. When Jon was four, his father taught him to convert numbers into binary code. It became something of a parlor trick.
"Hey Jon, what's four in binary?" his dad would ask on the fly.
"1100!" the curly-haired boy replied.
To improve Jon's math skills, Mark programmed a computer game called Hex Baseball; for the characters to advance, Jon had to correctly answer hexadecimal arithmetic questions. To teach his son to read, Mark designed a modification of a computer game called Colossal Cave Adventure. Every time Jon typed in a directional command-Go, Turn Left-the character on the screen responded accordingly. At bedtime, Mark didn't read to Jon from Hop on Pop, but from his dog-eared collection of science fiction and fantasy novels. The boy would fall asleep dreaming of shiny spaceships and green-skinned Orcs.
By the time he got to kindergarten, Jon's exceptional nature and nurture were readily apparent. "He's not only reading," his teacher effused, "he's reading at a third-grade level!" Before long, Finkel was reading his dad's books by himself. One time, after reading his son nightly chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, Mark had to go away on a business trip. When he came back two days later, he picked the book back up, but there was no need. Jon had read two hundred pages ahead on his own. He was seven.
The other side of his brain continued blooming, too. One afternoon, Claire brought him to nearby Kean College, where she was getting a degree in math. Inside a physics classroom, a professor noticed the pudgy boy fidgeting with a ruler. For fun, he asked the boy to compare two measurements. When Finkel quickly calculated the difference in length, the teacher arched his brow. "You should send him to private school," he told Claire.
Hoping to provide their son with a greater range of experience, however, Finkel's parents stuck with public school. They knew their boy was different, but, as Claire said, she wanted him to be "normal." Yet there was nothing normal about him. After finishing his classwork early, Finkel would waddle to his teacher's desk to hand in his work. Along the way, he would tell each student he passed all the wrong stuff they had written down on their papers. To make matters worse, Jon had developed a loud and fast manner of speaking, similar to his mother's. In his mind, he was just pointing out the obvious, but as far as other kids were concerned, Finkel was just being a jerk. And they would make him pay.
The taunts came early: "Jon Jon leprechaun, went to school with nothing on, teacher told him what to wear, polka-dotted underwear." Boys are defined by whatever rhymes with their last names. Some names insulate them from pain. Others invite it. "Finkel," as Jon quickly learned, was a death sentence. His name rhymed with Wrinkle, like the pale rolls of baby fat on his adolescent belly. It rhymed with Stinkel-not even a real word, but a stigma nonetheless, a condemnation: Finkel, he who stinks. And, as they showed him one day, it rhymed with Tinkle, too.
After school, Finkel was walking home when a gang of bullies burst after him. Too slow and heavy to outrun them, Finkel got cornered. The next thing he knew, he was on the ground. Someone's fly unzipped, and warm awful liquid rained down. The bullies left him there dripping in a hapless wet pile. If schools are divided into jocks and nerds, then Finkel had just been drafted as the biggest loser for the losing team.
"Harrrrgggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" came the horrific hurling sound from behind the bathroom door. The groan climaxed with a titanic splash. Then it ceased. Silence. Faint gulping of air. And then, again, terribly, the tidal wave recommenced, this time more horrifically fluid than before, a class-six white-water rapid of insides slamming into a porcelain vortex.
Leaning casually against the wall, Finkel stifled a yawn and checked his watch. Then he growled dramatically again. Reaching up high above his head, he poured a bucket of water down into the bowl. Rather than deal with the pain of school, Finkel played sick. But this game required skill. He had to be convincing, subtle. He didn't want to come on too strong. He had to splash just enough liquid in the bowl to arouse compassion. It required analysis, cunning, an ability to size up the moment, to read the barometer of a parent's sympathy meter. Some mornings, all it took to convince his parents was a bit of wailing in bed. Other mornings, such as today, he had to employ the water buckets. He splashed one more bit into the bowl, before concluding with a flush, and a yelp.
For a while, the sick game worked. He spent his days ensconced in his room, devouring books of fantasy and science fiction. Before long, he was up to five books a week. He stormed through all his dad's dusty classics: Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury. And he discovered what would become his own personal bible: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. The book detailed the futuristic adventures of Ender Wiggin, a boy genius drafted by the military at age six to save the world from an alien invasion. A master of war games, Ender quickly rises to the top of the army's so-called Battle School-only to discover the price, and pain, of his gift. Finkel could relate.
After one too many water symphonies in the bathroom, his parents knew something serious was paining their gifted son. Though Finkel didn't talk about it, he obviously dreaded going to school. He had no friends. And while his younger sister, Jenny, also smart, was acting like a social butterfly, Jon just seemed to be digging farther into his cocoon.
Soon enough, the truth came out. During parent conferences, his teachers complained about Jon's confrontational attitude. They also mentioned how he was being bullied for acting so smart in front of the other kids. Though Claire and Mark didn't know the extent of the beatings, it was enough to rend their hearts. "Jon's intellectually ahead, but emotionally behind," Mark said. "The combination of the two is deadly." Claire agreed. "Once you get labeled a victim," Mark said, "it builds upon itself." Something had to be done.
Since Mark and Claire were both self-ordained smart weirdos in their day, they pleaded with Jon to keep a low profile.
"Don't raise your hand every time you know the answer," Mark said.
"You can't go down the aisle in class telling the kids how smart you are," Claire said. "They resent it."
"When you do good on a test," Mark added, "keep your mouth shut."
Jon lowered his head and nodded quietly.
"When you get older," Claire said, reassuringly, "you'll see, things will get better." But, deep inside, she hated the hypocrisy of that sentiment. The football games were on the front page of the local paper; the chess club was on page sixteen. Why was it that a boy could boast of his physical prowess but not his mental abilities? If a boy wants to trash-talk, then there's an accepted place to do that: on the playing field. So that's where Finkel went.
Though Finkel was nerdy, that didn't mean he was uninterested in sports. He was an Eagles and Phillies fanatic. On weekends, he'd watch all the games with his dad, devouring every statistic on every player on the teams. Noticing his increasing weight, his dad encouraged Jon to get involved in playing sports on his own. Finkel squeezed into a soccer uniform and proceeded to embarrass himself on the field.
He told his parents he wanted to try another sport, like baseball. Mark wanted him to stick with the existing game. But the boy was adamant.
"Dad," he said, earnestly, "every kid wants to be a baseball hero."
Finkel joined the team. Not long after he started, he got hit in the head with a baseball and spent the rest of the year on the bench. But he never lost his passion to compete. He was just as strong as, if not stronger than, any other boy. It was just that his strength wasn't in his arms or legs, but in his brain. Why should that make him any less of an athlete? Why should that make him any less of an all-American boy? If he couldn't be an athlete in body, why not, then, in mind?
But no one ever became Randall Cunningham with just a brain. Sure, Finkel was the first kid in his bar mitzvah class to learn his Haftorah, but how many girls would daydream about that? Aside from the school quiz bowl team, which he led, Finkel had nowhere else to compete, nowhere to shine. Without an outlet, he expressed himself like generations of smart and persecuted American boys had done before.
Finkel got weird.
It was ten minutes before he had to leave for school, and Finkel checked himself over in the bathroom mirror. His hair twisted in Cubist mats of knots. His black T-shirt and baggy pants congealed with stains. The rising smell seemed to seal him in a dreadful green womb. If everyone thinks I'm a big freak, then, screw it, he decided, that's what I'm going to be; I can play this game, too. He wasn't faking sick this morning, he was going to school.
By the time he turned fourteen, Finkel had hardened into the unrelentingly geeky loser everyone had made him out to be. He stopped combing his hair. He stopped showering as often. He picked his nose acrobatically in front of other kids. And, though he was raised kosher, he stopped caring about what he ate. At lunch, he would gorge on McDonald's. At home, he would sneak into the bathroom after dessert and devour Fruit Roll-Ups.
At school, he lumbered down the halls like a big greasy mess of angry fat dork meat. Still the smartest kid in school, he chucked his mom's advice out the window and began brandishing his brain power at every opportunity. When he realized a group of kids were copying off him during a test, he purposely wrote down the wrong answers-sacrificing his own score just to keep them from doing well.
He showed up the teachers, too. Once, an instructor was insisting that Mount Washington was in upstate New York. Finkel knew she was wrong, because his dad had gone hiking on that mountain on a vacation. "You're completely wrong!" he said, hoisting his arm in the air. "Mount Washington's in New Hampshire."
"No," the teacher said, "it's in New York."
"No," Finkel said, more loudly, "it's in New! Hampshire!"
When she ignored him, he broke into an impromptu performance of "La Bamba." It felt like the right thing to do.
Fed on a steady diet of science fiction and junk food, Finkel became a powerhouse geek. But that didn't mean he identified with his peers. At this point, years before the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, brainy boys weren't icons of millionaire chic. They weren't geeks, they were just nerds. And there was a big difference between the two.
At school, Finkel discovered, the nerds had their own petty little social structure. He called it the Nerd Pyramid. As a subset of the school's larger ecosystem, the Nerd Pyramid housed all the pariahs. And the boys inside it could be as brutally competitive as the jocks. Finkel got into loud, argumentative matches with the other kids, trying to argue, say, why time travel is scientifically plausible. He argued so much, and so well, his parents thought he should become a lawyer. Finkel told them he was going to go to Princeton to become a genetic researcher. But, in reality, he had other ideas; he just didn't know what they were yet.
No matter how much he rebelled and postured, Finkel couldn't find his edge. The beatings continued-before school, after school, during school. The bullies grew so tired of beating him up that they had to invent new ways to keep it interesting. One time, they said they were going to beat him until he laughed; and they did, socking away at his ribs until he complied with a fake hearty chuckle.