At this point, you’ve probably already figured out that I have always been weird. I was raised this way. It’s not just the fact that my father is a nuclear physicist working in the Appalachians and my mother is a lawyer who would make us kids argue points and win cases to prove it was not I who left the towel on the bathroom floor. (There was a version of ‘if the glove does not fit, you must acquit’ in our kid-court long before Dershowitz used it for OJ.)
Though that surely would have been enough to turn me to the geek side, I got an even bigger dose: I grew up in Oak Ridge.
Alright, I admit that if you don’t know about Oak Ridge that last statements lacks gravitas. So let me explain how this helped warp young little me.
Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is best known as ‘the town that built the bomb’. Yes, THE bomb, dropped on Japan, ending WWII, blah blah blah. Though that’s the phrase most use ‘THE town that built the bomb’ is a misnomer – there’s also Oak Ridge’s sister city Los Alamos in New Mexico. Los Alamos built the hardware and Oak Ridge did the software. So it was really two cities that built the bomb, but the citizens of each claim to be from ‘The town’ that did it.
What this means (in terms of weirdness) is that the city didn’t grow the way others do. It was created. The Appalachians were virtually empty (a few squatters and landowners were run out for the greater good), and the mountains provided secrecy. This city did not start as a cluster of houses on good farming land. No, the streets are alphabetized from one end of the town to the other. One of the more heavily traveled streets is named after states – yes ‘states’ in the plural, because the road keeps changing names. It is believed that the roads were specifically designed to be confusing in case the town was invaded, which may explain the circles off of circles and things like that.
The location and the roads aren’t the only things that make the town weird though. Despite the fences around the city – from when you could only get in with a security clearance – there are plenty of other things that would make the average citizen frown.
Oak Ridge shares with its sister Los Alamos the distinction of being the city most often ranked with the highest number of PhDs per capita in the US (though in recent years this has been changing). This is because the government shipped them there to build the secret bomb! When the war was over and the city was opened to families, an education system was begun that became the best in the state. (Though being the best in Tennessee is a dubious honor, it is also one of the best public programs in the country.) It is reported that the citizens of Oak Ridge have never turned down a tax increase for education in the entire history of the town. And I can tell you numbers from my graduating class support this.
~360 graduates, ~180 on the Dean’s list (3.0 GPA or better)
17 National Merit Scholars (That’s 5% of the graduating class compared to the national average of less than half a percent!)
It’s really just crazy! As weird as I was, I kinda fit in. One of my earliest memories is of asking that childhood standard “Why is the sky blue?” Three hours later I said “Thank you, Daddy, I think I get refraction now.” (That wasn’t necessarily a polite ‘thank you’, I was tired of listening to how light bends – I was four.) But I think I may not be the only kid from town with that memory . . .
Growing up geek led to some issues when I went off to college and learned that not everyone took 6 AP classes their junior and senior year of high school. I was aghast to learn that some schools only offered 3 – 5 different AP classes at all. (In Oak Ridge you could pick and choose about 3 years worth of curricula in AP!)
Now combine this with my family – who were not from Oak Ridge until my parents moved there for my Dad’s job when I was small. On my father’s side, my grandparents were disappointed in my uncle whom my grandfather once referred to as a ‘dropout’. It was only years later that I came to learn meant said uncle didn’t finish his Master’s program. Or maybe it was his PhD. Drop-out! Ha!
You can see that I didn’t really stand a chance. I was a mathlete in a school of mathletes. And I loved it maybe because it was what I knew. But I am continuing the tradition with my own kids. My daughter, at age four, had a visiting teacher at her summer school point to a butterfly puppet and ask the students to name parts of the butterfly. My girl said ‘Proboscis’. And my eight year old son answered my Dad’s question about conductors versus insulators with not only ‘It’s a conductor’ but big eye roll at being asked such an inane question.
You know what they say: You can take the girl out of the town, but you can’t take the town out of the girl!
How I Learned to Love the Bomb – Part 2
How I Learned to Love the Bomb – Part 3
Listen to AJ's Podcast SMART CHICKENS
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