Nerds have more fun

Essay by Nathan Adkisson

Education – March 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT IS A STANDARD CLASSROOM, except for two things. First, it’s Saturday, and second, teenagers in the room don’t look bored or blank: they look elated or dismayed.

They’re clustered in groups of four, each holding contraptions that look like bomb detonators. An adult at the front reads from a sheet of paper: “The category is: subatomic particles.” Noise fills the room. Three lights appear on the box of a college student holding a time-keeping device, each light flares an instant after the other.

“Team B was first,” the college-age timekeeper says, looking at the adolescents in the middle group. They in turn look searchingly at each other since, after all, the question wasn’t even completed.

“Electron,” says a disheveled-looking boy on the end. “That is incorrect,” the announcer-reader replies.

“Next was team A,” the timekeeper says.

“Quark, says a small girl with enormous glasses.

“No,” says the reader.

“Team C?” asks the watch-woman. A tall boy with long curly hair looks at his team. One holds up five fingers, one holds up two; the last one looks like she’s in a trance. Nothing happens for 10 seconds. Then the timekeeper says, “Five seconds.” “Alejandro,” the captain says, pointing to the one who’d held up five fingers.

“Charm quark?” he says.

“Yes!” the announcer says with disbelief, amazed again at the quick reflexes and smart guesses of the team.

This is a Knowledge Bowl, and I have been competing in these nerdy athletics since the fifth grade. I’m now 16, and I’m going to keep at it through high school, college and afterward, if I can. But my choice now creates a few problems: I’m nearly 6’4″, probably tallest in the school, and that makes me a magnet for the basketball coach. He knows I love the game, having played basketball since the third grade.

But this year I gave up the sporting life, which is not the most popular choice in a small town in the mountains of western Colorado. “You’re crazy to quit,” was a common reaction. Here’s what drove me: I’ve noticed that some people get stuck at age 18. I even know some graduates who return to their palace, the high school gym in this town of 1,000, wishing they could play again. That’s not for me. I want out. I’ve had senioritis for several years now.

But mainly, I love knowledge bowl for the challenge. I bet it’s better than Las Vegas for random possibilities. It is impossible to have read every book, but I hope to have read the one that might be the subject of the next question. The payoff is a feeling that I don’t find duplicated anywhere else. All the right chemicals are secreted to the brain when the judge accepts an answer. I’d even bet that competitions are more addictive than a slot machine.

IT’S ALSO SOCIALLY ADDICTIVE. The students involved are, to say the least, different, at least from the perspective of non-participants. I love the difference. The winners of last year’s state competition were from Durango, in southwestern Colorado. One member wore green surgical scrubs and rabbit ears. A competitor from Aspen wore a top hat; another wore green, camouflage Ché Guevara fatigues.

Last year, the team from my high school in Delta County was one of the most successful. We won second place at the state competition at Adams State College in Alamosa after a long and tense, double overtime. Each member of a second-place team wins a $750 scholarship to college, so the team even got paid to answer questions.

The starting four were Joe Spalenka, Brandon Coble, Jamie Bacon and Joel Anderson. They played chess endlessly — in the vans on the trips, before and after meets, and sometimes even during competition. All four graduated last year. So we are now a young team in the “rebuilding” stage. It is hard to recruit new members, since high schoolers get so mired in the swamp of peer pressure that they don’t think to escape. But those who do join us never look back. They learn the extreme pleasures of being a nerd — a swift nerd with a buzzer and a brain — and the teamwork that makes it click.

Nate Adkisson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He is a sophomore at Cedaredge High School.