Adam’s Excellent Adventure
Chin a tad too long. Eyebrows a touch too bushy. Not tall. OK, shortish.
Quirky, yes. Brilliant, maybe. Computer nerd, definitely.
At 20, Adam Field is a self-proclaimed geek. Think a nerdy Albert Brooks in the movie “Broadcast News"--smart enough to get the lead but never gets the girl.
“I am a geek,” Field wrote in an essay to apply for a National Merit Scholarship during his senior year at a small private high school in Santa Cruz, which, by the way, he won. “If I had to choose one word to describe myself, geeky would be it; it doesn’t fit perfectly, but as mathematicians like to say, it’s a ‘close approximation.’ ”
“Geeky,” at least, is a much closer approximation than “severely emotionally disturbed"--a label that clung to Field in kindergarten. “Geek” fits. He’s happy with it. Plus, the label jibes perfectly with the mental health diagnosis given to Field by UC San Francisco doctors when he was 10 years old.
Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, also is known as “Geek Syndrome"--a term that headlined a 2001 Wired magazine article. A disorder that most people hadn’t heard of before the ‘90s, it’s the mental health label-of-the-day, coinciding with a nationwide epidemic in reported cases of autism. Now there’s even a best-selling book, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” by Mark Haddon, in which the main character, 15-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone, knows all the prime numbers up to 7,057 but detests the color yellow and doesn’t like to be touched. In interviews, the author describes Boone as having Asperger’s.
So someone like Field is being celebrated in print. Now if he could just get a date.
“I’d like to date,” Field says while staring at his sneakers, home on a break from Harvey Mudd, a prestigious math and science university in Claremont. (Eye contact, for people like Field, can be tough.) “I just have absolutely no idea how to go about it.”
Michelangelo, it has been theorized, with that quirky Sistine ceiling obsession, may have had Asperger’s. Bill Gates, known for tantrum throwing, repetitive rocking and, of course, computer lust, is another possible candidate.
Tough to define, tougher to diagnose. But they’re definitely not your average party animals.
For Field, Asperger’s has meant an inability to organize his shoes in a closet, let alone organize a six-hour school day. Despite graduating from high school with a 4.3 grade-point average and winning statewide and national academic awards, he struggled daily trying to remember to write down homework assignments. Matching clothes is still beyond him. Putting papers away in his cubby in kindergarten was so overwhelmingly impossible that out of total frustration he called his teacher something fairly obscene and was suspended. It also sent him into episodes of obsessive-compulsive behavior, causing him to run to the bathroom every five minutes. He pitched full-body tantrums until fourth grade, bit his arm black and blue, and had little interest in making friends with anyone who didn’t own a gaming system, such as Nintendo.
At 4 years old, when most boys wanted to be firefighters, Field was planning his career as a computer programmer. By preschool, the bullies knew whom to target. By kindergarten, he was branded. In elementary school, they crumbled his cookies, then stomped them into the blacktop with their sneakers. They grabbed his beloved books, threw them across the room, then stole his chair when he got up to retrieve them. When he sat on a bench, everyone else moved to the other side.
“When I was 5,” Field wrote in his “proud to be a geek” essay, “I often asked my father to read to me at night from his Atlas. And when my mother told me that she would no longer read me the text of computer games, with the hope that I would stop playing them so much, I taught myself to read.”
By second grade, he was reading at the 12th-grade level. But as he got older, his academic awards began to attract greater accolades and fewer bullies. He also discovered other “gifts.”
Field has excellent pitch. By high school, he was starring in musicals. Sure, he usually played the geeky characters--Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors,” for example--but he was good at it. He made people laugh. And, he found, his geekism offered him even more. He could dress how he wanted, befriend whom he wanted. He was free from the pressures of popularity. Unlike most high school students, he could be himself.
When it came time for college, Field chose a place where he thought he could fit in. Harvey Mudd College is known as a place for geeks. A place where 25% of the 700 or so undergrads were high school valedictorians. A place he figured he could find other students who got excited about the etymology of words and phrases, or were up to date on current events in the worlds of science and technology.
A place where it’s cool to go sleepless because you were up all night at your computer again, fighting a full-grown green dragon with your level-10 Valkyrie, trying to keep it from choking to death on the dragon’s corpse.
And he was right. He’s found it. At Harvey Mudd the students hold an all-weekend “Lord of the Rings” read-a-thon; “board-game night” on Wednesdays is party night; and you need a basic understanding of physics to get most of their jokes--or, at least, a personal relationship with a large number of science fiction books.
And then there’s “Mudd Speak,” the campus slang. For instance, a term such as “crack” refers to any leisure activity--usually computer games but sometimes board games--that is really addictive and takes you away from doing homework.
“It’s like, ‘Hey, are you up for doing some crack tonight?’ ” Field explains, raising his eyebrows, finally looking up from his sneakers and smiling with pure glee.
Life has definitely improved for Field. Today he’s hoping to study computer science and linguistics in graduate school, perhaps at MIT, if he can bring his chemistry grades up.
But for now, he’s found a place where he can sit on the couch and read for as long as he wants, and nobody gets up and moves to the other side.