Learning that one has “The Knack” is not unlike Luke Skywalker being told by Obi Wan that he is a Jedi, or Harry Potter learning that he is a wizard. Let me be clear: by no means do I suggest that engineers are in any way superior to anyone else. After all, Han Solo is just as bad ass as Yoda, and I’m pretty sure his midi-chlorian count is NaN. This writing simply seeks to make light of the awkward journey all engineers must travel on the path to adulthood.
Part of me wishes that someone would have sat me down at a young age and explained to me exactly what it means to be math/science oriented. Sure, I had the title—at the age of 7, I improved an origami design in Sunday school and was declared an engineer on the spot by the teacher. Years later, sick of burning my tongue on hot food, I fashioned a device from an old CPU fan from a 386 and my erector set over which I could hold a fork-full of scalding dinner thus cooling it to a more manageable temperature. My mother embraced this, and only advised that I clean the dust off the fan prior to testing the device with real food. She did, however, put the kibosh on my cutting into the kitchen table such that the food cooler could be completely recessed in the surface.
The fact of the matter is I liked being what I understood to be an “engineer”, but I had absolutely no idea what was included in this package: Fear of the opposite sex, poorly assuming that girls are impressed with electronics, and general ridicule from the other kids who actually excel at sports, to name a few. When I would come home from elementary school, upset because I had been made fun of for having a jeans penis, or something of the sort, my mother would sit me down, and as lovingly as she could, explain to me that it was my smarts that were truly important and nothing else mattered. Looking back, she was in fact correct, but do you think those words were of any comfort to a 4th grader? I wonder if she had put it more blatantly it would have helped. “Andrew,” She could have said, gesturing to the food cooler cluttering her kitchen table, “You are an engineer. You will only be understood by other engineers. As far as girls go, you’d best just plan on waiting until you’re getting a pay check.” But she didn’t, and I was left thinking that my only real “gift” in life was something that would only get me further ridicule.
In the eighth grade I took a computer applications class. This was back before children learned to type and use Facebook prior to developing speech skills. The focus of the class was to teach students computer skills, namely proper typing technique. On the first day of class, the teacher attempted to explain the different parts of the computer system to us. She showed us a mouse, a keyboard, a monitor, and then held up a hard drive and proclaimed in a CD-ROM. I LQTM before that acronym even existed. But then it got really messy. She pointed to the tower and announced to the class that this was the CPU. I was fed up. Any idiot knows that the CPU is not the entire friggin’ computer, but rather a single IC on the motherboard. I raised my frustrations to my friends after class, but much to my surprise, they all sided with the teacher! They told me I was full of crap.
And so, as one does more often than not in middle school, I went home that afternoon dejected. My mother hoping to remedy the situation, did what any non-technical parent would do—she called Best Buy. And the friendly computer salesperson (That doesn’t know JACK SHIT!!) also agreed with the teacher. I was crushed. I thought I had been wrong all this time. Worse, I thought my father was wrong as he had taught me.
When my father got home that evening, I’m sure my mother had the joy of telling him that his oldest son was currently holed up in his room thinking that his father is a fraud. I very much hope that they had a good laugh over this before putting their solemn consoling faces back on to see me. As vividly as I remember the entire affair, it pains me that I have no recollection whatsoever of what my father said to me or if he even spoke to me about it. He could have reminded me that computers are his profession so he probably knows what he’s talking about. He could have also tried to explain that both answers are in fact correct depending on how technical a person is. But I think he thought it best to let this one lie knowing that soon I would find the answer myself and stand by it, even in the face of opposition and ridicule. He may have also predicted that in the not-so-distant future, I would find myself surrounded by like-minded people with whom I would share this story and they would all completely empathize.
I look back and wonder if any of this had been explained to the younger version of me, life could have been easier, but of course not! Of course my mother wouldn’t have stomped on my dreams by telling me that “normal” boys don’t make food coolers from CPU fans, or trip the breaker by attempting to power a small DC motor straight from the outlet, or make box fan-powered vehicles whose range does not exceed the length of an extension cord. And I love her for that.
I think it took getting married to a non-technical woman to realize that engineers truly are an odd bunch. And it wasn’t until I was long out of high school that I finally found myself proud to be a nerd. Sure I played along when my girlfriend senior year got a shirt that read “I ♥ Nerds”, but I still didn’t put myself in that category. The point is, we’re all awkward at one point or another, engineers just tend to get it a little worse than others. But most of us grow out of it and then look back on these times tenderly. After all, those are the moments that define us, even if those moments did involve talking a friend into grabbing an electric cattle fence with one hand while placing the other firmly on the ground…