Patron Saint of Nerds



I was seven when I first saw Spock.

My family was visiting my grandfather in Seattle. For some reason--probably because it was summertime--I was up later than usual. The TV was on, and I saw a few minutes of a Star Trek episode, "Tomorrow Is Yesterday." It's the episode in which the Enterprise is hurled back in time by some kind of anomaly, resulting in an Air Force pilot being beamed aboard to save his life when a tractor beam causes his jet to come apart. I saw him materialize in the transporter room where his first sight was of Spock. And that's it: I didn't see another episode until the show hit syndication in 1970. But the image of the pointy-eared Vulcan, so different from every other member of the cast, yet clearly part of the crew, let me know this was not just any science fiction show: it featured diversity at its core.

And that's what I found to be true as I hurried home from school each day to watch what quickly became my favorite piece of pop culture. In the years to come, I would watch and rewatch Star Trek so many times that, even tuning in halfway through an episode, I could identify it within seconds. Star Trek showed me a future in which people like me--misfits, eggheads, nerds--came together as a crew that cared about each other and worked together to solve problems. They were united by their passion for exploration, and even though their technology seemed advanced to some of the alien cultures they encountered, more often they found themselves humbled by contact with far more advanced civilizations. Through it all, the fundamental principles of Star Trek were grounded in humanism: seeking knowledge for its own sake, promoting values of equality and cooperation, finding the good in others.

And at the heart of it all was Spock.

When I first began watching, Captain Kirk was my favorite character. He was a man of action, but also of ethics, always trying to do the right thing for his crew and for the alien cultures he encountered. As time went by, though, I found myself, like so many other fans, becoming more and more attached to Spock. Like all Vulcans, Spock was devoted to logic; unlike most, his hybrid heritage--his mother was human--gave him the challenge of reining in his emotions. To be logical was not a necessity, but a choice. It was clearly a struggle for him, and as explained by his mother in "Journey to Babel," it made him an outcast among his own people, so that his only true home was Starfleet.

I, too, was a misfit among my own people. Growing up in Idaho, I felt marginalized by my religious identity: surrounded by Mormons, I was the child of the Methodist minister. I was also overweight, non-athletic, and wore thick glasses. Entering junior high--the time in my life when Star Trek most mattered to me--I was ridiculed by my peers, the subject of cruel jokes and bullying. It didn't help me at all that I was a favorite of many of my teachers--I might as well have worn a bulls eye to school--and that my father was himself quite a nerd, not to mention a pacifist in a land of right-wing gun enthusiasts.

So I gravitated to Spock. Here was a character who, as much as his personality and alien habits might conflict with the rest of the mostly-human crew, was respected, honored, and treated even with affection by his peers. In "Mirror, Mirror," when the Spock of the militarized parallel universe is nearly killed with a skull-crushing blow by the Enterprise officers, Dr. McCoy insists on saving him because, as Kirk acknowledges, "He is very like our Mr. Spock, isn't he?" Spock's ethics are grounded in logic, his spirituality is far more akin to Zen than theism, his advice and commands can often seem cold, and yet he often acts with compassion.

I wasn't just attracted to Spock. In many ways, I wanted to be Spock. I wanted my peers to acknowledge and value my gifts, to tap into my knowledge and skills, to treat me as indispensable. Even in college, where I finally became part of a group of friends whose closeness resembled that of the Enterprise crew, those many years of rejection left me insecure about their feelings for me. And when that time ended and our fellowship was broken, casting me back out into the harsh world of nerd rejection, there were many times I was tempted to, like Spock in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, purge myself of emotions, choosing a path of pure logic. Of course, Spock in the end rejects that path, returns to Starfleet, and finally makes peace with his two natures--though it takes him until middle age (and a literal death and resurrection) to arrive at that tranquility. Like Spock, I, too, have found, in middle age, that I am finally at peace with my personality, my identity, my upbringing, all the aspects of my life that had me in turmoil. I am content now to just be myself.

Watching Leonard Nimoy's portrayal of Spock evolve over the decades was like giving myself a pop culture road map to my own development as an adult. Knowing, too, that the actor had wrestled for so many years at being identified with this one character, that he was most loved when wearing a ridiculous pair of prosthetic ears, but that, in time, he came to accept and even embrace this role, made the character that much more real to me.

I know I'm not alone when I say that Spock was my patron saint through adolescence. More than any other fictional character, he pulled me through the hardest time of my life. That I survived and, much more than that, thrived is, to a significant extent, his doing.

Leonard Nimoy died last Friday. There have been many deaths in my life in the last year, many members of my father's generation (including, two months ago, my father) who have passed from this world. I know this is a natural thing for a man of my years, and that it has always been this way, the senior generation handing off its responsibilities to the middle agers who are their children. But it is a hard thing to watch the icons of one's youth depart. That they lived well is some comfort, and also an example for what my remaining years can be like.

Goodbye and godspeed, Leonard. While you will not again portray the Vulcan science officer who did so much to rescue me from adolescent misery, I know that he will continue to live long and prosper in the hearts of countless misfits.

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