'Please Don't Beat Me Up' nerd rails against bullying advice

Adam J. Ruben, a comedian, writer and scientist, has been called a nerd for most of his life. Does he fit the bill? Probably.

He was in the Princeton marching band. He clearly had no qualms about wearing suspenders in 1990. He kept an audio diary in seventh grade. And today he's taking his one-man show, "Don't Beat Me Up: Stories and Artifacts from Adolescence" to his high school alma mater, performing for the freshmen class while the sophomores and juniors take the PSAT.

It's a spoken word performance based off of diaries, poems and other documentation of his grade school life as the object of so many bullies' attention.

The show started out as an act of commiseration with peers, fashioned primarily as a comedy. "Most of it is joking about how lame we all were and how nerdy we were and looking at it now from this side," Ruben said. But it does expose the pain of growing up in America as a nerd.

"I don't think any of the nerds at my school had that one day where they stood up to the bully and the bully backed down, like that scene in 'The Christmas Story' where Ralphie Parker stands up to Scut Farkus and starts wailing on him," Ruben said.

For Ruben, bullying was something that happened so often he couldn't go to school without being bullied.

All the advice about dealing with bullying that he was given as a child - Kill the bully with kindness because nobody's been nice to them before; If you're nice to a bully then suddenly they'll be a gentle giant on your side; Make the bully laugh; Ignore the bully, walk away; Just be yourself - was never anything that worked, he said.

"It just isn't true, and kids realize it isn't true," Ruben said. "It's good advice for adults, but for kids 'be yourself' doesn't really work."

"I end (my show) with sort of a non-conclusion. That it does get better when you become an adult. People sort of stop being petty and selfish about it, and the bullying really changes character and goes away often. But what would I tell an eighth-grader today who's being bullied other than it gets better eventually? I don't have a good answer."

But an interesting meeting at the Wilmington Fringe Festival caught Ruben's attention. A high school student came up to him after the show and said, "Yeah, all the advice that you said doesn't work about bullying, they just had an assembly with us and told us all the same advice," Ruben said. "Which is interesting and sad."

With so much media attention on America's culture of bullying and tragic tributes to victims of bullying who took their own lives rather than continue to be abused by their peers, Ruben sees the ongoing acceptance of bullying to be infuriating. Especially so, he said, because no good solution to the problem has been found.

"Society has this expectation that nerds are people to be bullied and made fun of," Ruben said. "I would get mad every time there was a TV show that had nerd characters on it and they always had thick glasses with tape in the middle and they were in the chess club, and it became perfectly OK to make fun of them.

"It made me very angry because being a nerd was not something that I chose, and it was not something that I was proud of, and it was not something I could change," he said.

The social pressures of being bullied makes nerds turn on one another, he said.

"It's that need to feel like no matter what, you're not the very, very bottom person. There is someone that you can still be more popular than. One kid who is weirder than you, and you make sure that kid is your friend because then you don't look so bad in comparison," he said.

"I knew, in high school, I could identify the few kids that I thought were less popular than I was. And it sounds horrible. I think that it made me feel a little good that no matter what, I was third to last and not last."

"Don't Beat Me Up" showcases some of those painful moments in Ruben's life. Like the note he typed on homecoming night in 10th grade.

"I promised myself that I would master this social thing, I will have friends, and I will know that I've succeeded if I have a date for homecoming," Ruben said. "I'll ask somebody, anybody, and I'll go there. I'll have a date, I'll be like a normal person."

But it didn't happen. "Homecoming night I went out to dinner with my parents, and then came home and was so depressed about it, I went right to the basement and I started typing. And I had that document, so I was able to read some parts of that," Ruben said.

Ruben said he thinks the acceptance of bullying in America comes down to the fact that it is still OK, even expected, to make fun of people who are not self-aware.

"In the same way on a TV show that the stupid character is not self-aware, and you laugh when the stupid character says something stupid, you laugh at the nerd not being self-aware, and saying things that may be inappropriately intelligent for the situation or inappropriately detailed," he said.

It's a bit of a romantic notion for nerds to believe they are bullied because others are jealous of their potential, Ruben said. "I don't think that anyone who picked on me would have traded places with me," he said.

And now he's performing his one-hour show in front of a room full of high school freshmen whose reaction to his nerdy confessions is unpredictable.

"I'm not even sure they can sit still and watch an entire play for that long."