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Revenge of the nerds, party for the people

By Don M. Burrows
April 27, 2006 | Minnesota Daily

Geek Prom hit the Science Museum of Minnesota like a polyester invasion of plaid socks, black plastic glasses and ill-fitting clothes.

Geeks showed the fifth annual alternative prom no mercy, snapping their fingers to the tune of “The Lone Ranger” in a talent contest, whispering the secrets of passing AP calculus in secluded corners and showing off the correct use of the slide rule to amazed onlookers.

It was a prom for those who didn’t get a prom in their youth, or didn’t attend the one their school had, many participants said — a dance for the discomfited.

“You can be yourself here,” said proud geek John Cavanaugh, the reigning prom king until Saturday night. “Well, I can be myself here,” he said. “There’s some real amateurs out there.”

The prom originally was in Duluth, but organizers moved it to St. Paul this year at the request of the Science Museum of Minnesota.

“Of course the marriage of geek and science goes back through the ages,” said Paul Lundgren, a co-founder of the prom and one of this year’s VIPs.

Stations were set up in the museum for handwriting analysis, the “chemistry of cocktails” and cow-eye dissection. Many patrons were seen tipping back the prom’s feature drink: the Dr. Spock: A sour-apple martini with a cherry garnish.

“As you can see, there are some pretty serious geeks here,” Lundgren added, donning sunglasses reminiscent of a science-fiction film about giant bees.

Just like every year, a king and queen will be crowned tonight. Cavanaugh attributed his win last year to implements he brought with him to the prom: A briefcase with a 1989 weather review and an English-Klingon dictionary. His queen, Crystal Pelkey, said she bribed the judges with cards made from her New Kids on the Block comic book collection, one of several crafts she lists as credentials, another being the lampshade she has made out of love letters from the third grade.

The Spaz Dance attracted some takers a few hours into the evening, but two floors down a larger crowd of the awkwardly dressed and “Star Trek”-obsessed gathered to hear proclamations from the VIPs of the prom.

With such a plethora of geeky expression on display, it’s hard not to wonder about the common bond that brings them back every year.

Lundgren said that bond is about a shared space for outcasts to mingle as one.

“Whether society has labeled them a geek or they call themselves a geek, we’re taking the word geek back.”

Jon Lee, one of the event's masters of ceremony, undoubtedly would earn his geek credentials even without the pinstripe suit coat he wore Saturday over shorts. The holder of a bachelor’s degree in English, he’s researched the etymology of the word geek and once gave a PowerPoint presentation on the distinctions between being a “nerd” and a “geek.”

Lundgren added that the definition of geek has changed over time, and what was once “geek” is now “chic,” a self-assuring mantra guests repeated many times in the course of the evening.

Most of the crowd Saturday night consisted of return geeks from previous years. Brian Gioielli and Tracey Tennyson, two nonprofit workers, said this was their first experience. Asked if he is a geek or just here in disguise, Gioielli hesitated.

Tennyson answered for him in the affirmative.

“I for sure love ‘Star Wars’,” Gioielli added, pointing to his Sith-worshipping shirt hereby known as the clincher. “I guess I fit into some of the stereotypes.”

And that’s what Geek Prom seems to be about: The exaggeration of years of geek stereotypes engrained in our culture through sitcoms and playground ridicule. By overstating it themselves and reveling in the eccentricities that separate these promgoers from so-called “normal” people, we’re almost made to feel sorry for those who spent high school fitting a mold and mocking those that didn’t measure up.

As for the turnout, VIPs were somewhat disappointed Saturday. More people came to this prom than in previous years, but the sprawling corridors of the Science Museum sometimes made the throngs of geeks look as sparse as the electrons around a lithium atom.

But Lee is hopeful for next year’s prom.

“All we can say for sure is that we will have it next year,” Lee said. “But we’ve dreamed of having it here for five years. For me, it’s a dream come true.”