The thing that surprises me most, while beginning research about Exeter Geek Day, is that it is real. If one types up the three words in Google search bar, dozens of images pop up, linked to Andover.edu’s official photo gallery; in one photo, a red-clad girl with thick-rimmed glasses is shown with a note on her back that reads “kick me,” while several other students gather around, dressed in a variety of crimson shirts. Some even go so far as to design their own fake Exeter gear, with scribbly Es and farcical logos into the bargain. Introduced as a “long-standing Fall tradition,” the event is perceived as a normal day in the life, even something to be advertised to non-members of the Academy. Whether consciously or not, Andover seems to be promoting their reputation as a more “balanced” school, to differentiate from Exeter’s notorious image as an academically cut-throat institution hand-crafted, allegedly, for geeks.
This stereotype is as inaccurate as it is harmful. Coming from an education system that promotes nothing more than book learning, I was shocked, my Junior year at Exeter, at the diverse range of activities I was encouraged to immerse myself in outside of the classroom. While it is true that I can hardly find a day during the school year when I have actual “free” time, each hour is spent developing a broad array of life skills. Here, talent in sports, music, arts, and other forms of extracurriculars is just as well-respected as academics; I go to school with friends who not only cherish sincere passions for a multitude of disciplines, but spend time caring for each other as well. If anything, I find that Exeter, with its dorm events, DJ-powered dances and evening prayers, has exerted a corrosive effect on my geekiness. Even the classes themselves do not truly feel like classes; seated around the Harkness table, Exeter students constantly engage in conversations that are exciting and fun.
I am sure that as a sister school with roughly similar standards, Andover offers a similarly wholesome experience for its students as well (barring the STEM Harkness part — Andover Math classrooms, with its rows of perfectly-lined desks and tiny constricting chairs, make me feel sad). Despite popular opinion, Exeter has not yet established an Andover Slacker Day, we will assume, out of respect for Andover’s true merits underneath the “slacking” veneer; why does Andover, then, feel the need to stage belittling caricatures of their rivals? Even if most Phillipians, I hope, are well-intentioned individuals who only desire to indulge in light-hearted mockery, their actions do contribute to reinforcing stereotypes about others that are simply false. And what about the true geeks of Andover? The substantial body of students who find themselves unashamedly drawn to grinding out multivariable AMC calculations for Math Club on a Sunday morning? Would they not feel particularly targeted during Geek Day, when their whole community dresses up as oblivious book-carriers with antisocial behavior to mimic sitcom-style nerdiness? If a school regards the pursuit of knowledge as one of its ideals, then those who crave knowledge the most should feel welcomed at all times, not made the butt of the joke on school spirit day.
Those at Andover who raise their voice against this overt discrimination of nerds reportedly face harsh backlash for daring to violate “school spirit” during the heat of E/A, dampening the fiery rivalrous mood of the school community. Granted, interscholastic rivalry is an integral part of the high school experience; without it, students would not have half as much drive to practice and do well, not only during the athletic season, but throughout the rest of the school year. Healthy competition would be beneficial for both academic institutions, Exeter and Andover, as each strives to outrank the other in the many aspects of student life — academics, sports and extracurricular activities, among others — fostering healthier environments day by day.
The consequent vehement expression of school spirit should be welcomed, especially during appropriate events; however, I have some questions for Andover. Is there not a better way to display school spirit than using simplistic, demeaning stereotypes to mock your rivals during a football game, at the expense of academically-gifted students in your own community? Can Andover, “the liberal arts alternative to Exeter’s nerdy STEM,” not be more creative in producing good #schoolspirit traditions?
Mai Hoang is an Upper at Phillips Exeter Academy.