Inessa on nerds and cool people. This column first appeared in The Jewish Advocate (subscription required):

How a nerdy mom saved her son from the clutches of cool

Inessa Rifkin

I magine extraterrestrials landing on earth. Their mission: Understand earthlings, their language and cultural habits.

Assuming these creatures were reasonably competent, they would show progress within a few years. But let’s toss them a curve: They also have to figure out how to feed themselves and their families here. Now they would really have to apply themselves.

Still, no matter how hard our alien visitors would try and how quickly they would learn, they would miss a lot of cultural details.

With the exception of the extraterrestrial origin, my family faced a similar challenge. We came to America from the Soviet Union in 1988 just as the Cold War was ending. There were four of us: my husband, myself and our two children, ages 7 and 2.

With great math skills and a strong motivation to learn, I quickly started speaking English, honed my marketable skills and landed an interesting, well-paid job. Nevertheless, I still was oblivious to many cultural details of America.

My kids, who attended a good suburban school, became my first teachers. When my son began middle school, I discovered facts about myself that I had never noticed before. I learned, for example, that I was “weird” – I was not like other, “normal” parents. I also learned a new word, one that had no Russian equivalent. That word was “nerd.”

I learned that nerds were awkward, sloppy, socially inept people with “weird” interests like math, science and similarly unpopular subjects. In short, interests that made them “totally not cool.”

I thought back to my school days and the kids I knew then. Indeed, some were clumsy; others were orderly; some loved math and science; and still others didn’t see any value at all in studying. But I could not recall anyone who fit this cultural type that kids in America talked so much about: these nerds, these clumsy, sloppy lovers of math and science.

This stereotype did not exist back on my home planet of Russia. From my early childhood, I was taught to be polite and orderly, and to love and learn math and science. For a Jewish child, that was the only ticket to advancement and often survival in that society. And I knew very well that I owed my early success in America to those early teachings.

Newly enlightened, I set about learning all I could about these American nerds. I sensed that these unsympathetic types might be somehow related to me; after all, I was called a “weird” mother. So, my first step was to figure out what made me weird. It was a puzzle. I had a good family and had earned respect and success at work. Until my teenage son, no one had ever called me weird. Was it my accent? Not necessarily. My son’s circle of friends included many immigrant families, and they weren’t all deemed to be weird.

In due time, though, I came to realize what made me weird. I insisted on my children being disciplined. I would cut short their computer playtime. I pushed them not only to get good grades, but to comprehend what they were learning. I did not understand terms like “fun” and “privacy,” which at the time were particularly important to my son. It turned out that I violated my son’s privacy every time I demanded an account of his activities and abrogated his inalienable right to freedom every time I disturbed his fun.

Being a proud child in a family of immigrants, he saw his rights as a culmination of our long journey from Russia. After all, isn’t this why we came to America?

Now, I must note, that despite his rebellious talk, our son was always a very good boy. He was reliable with everything he did. I suspected he inherited this trait from his weird, nerdy parents. But when he saw other cool boys and girls seeking fun all the time, he applied his characteristic passion and discipline to this pursuit.

What did it take to be accepted by the cool crowd? You needed to have lots of friends, dress up in a certain way and, most importantly, shun math and science. In fact, a great way for teens to brandish their non-nerdy credentials was to proclaim they were “not a math person.”

I was terrified.

Continuing with my extraterrestrial analogy, I felt as if my beloved son had all but been kidnapped by aliens. Physically he was there, but his mind was completely out of my control. Moreover, I strongly suspected that he wasn’t in control of his own mind, either; the aliens controlled it, and they were neither my friends nor his.

I noticed a scary uniformity of habits, attitudes and interests within the cool crowd. While nerds could choose from a fairly long list of interests ranging from math and science to computers and animals, the cool crowd was slavishly following a narrowly defined, trendy subset of popular culture.

I could think of other places with the same widespread uniformity. Back in the Soviet Union everybody was forced to watch the same shows, memorize the same speeches, proclaim loyalty to the same leaders and open any discourse, from biology to literary fiction, with ritual remarks about Marx and Lenin. But back in the old country, we all knew that this uniformity was supported by a pervasive fear of repression. Before marrying my husband, I remember how my parents watched TV without ever criticizing the authorities, while my future husband’s family watched the same shows but always criticized the system – always making sure they spoke in lowered voices and behind closed doors.

How was it that in America – this beacon of freedom to me and to the rest of the world – such narrowmindedness and self-imposed censure cramped all cultural matters?

Friends, neighbors and relatives told me I was overreacting. Boys will be boys, and everybody should have a chance to be what they want to be. If my son chose to be a shallow, average American boy, that was his right. But I resisted this advice with all my passion. I knew an enemy when I saw it: In this case, it was a popular culture in which other people dictated choices to our children. My maternal instinct was right on target, and later on I learned quite a bit about people shaping cultural agendas for our children. I recommend that every parent watch the documentary “Merchants of Cool”: it’s as relevant today as it was when it was made a decade ago. In it, Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at New York University, says:

“It’s part of the official advertising worldview that your parents are creeps, teachers are nerds and idiots, and authority figures are laughable; nobody can really understand kids except the corporate sponsor. That huge authority has, interestingly enough, emerged as the sort of tacit superhero of consumer culture. That’s the coolest entity of all, and yet they are very busily selling the illusion that they are there to liberate the youth, to let them be free, to let them be themselves, to let them think different, and so on. But it’s really just an enormous sales job.” Cultural heroes imposed by TV and other media are muscular, athletic, sexy and very cool. The notion of cool has an ever-changing nature. Kids have to chase this dream endlessly – with their parents’ money footing the bill.

But back to my own son. I knew that I needed to act, and to act fast. I feared that the deep bond that I felt with my parents would never exist between my children and me. To succeed, I had to define normal for my son.

First, I pointed out that some of his friends’ parents also insisted on work, discipline and a proper attitude. He sensed some truth behind my words. Next, I started a math program. I really wanted to win back my son, to save him and the children of my friends. We had to create a new peer group, one where it would be OK to learn math, to be interested in science, to take on difficult challenges – where it would be OK, in a way, to be a nerd.

That was 15 years ago. With the Russian School of Mathematics, we succeeded in creating an island of sanity for our children and for many others. My dream would be for children across America to know that it is all right to be different, it is all right to take a stand, it all right to make your own choices.

My son is my colleague now, he joined RSM last year as chief operating officer.

It feels at times weird working with my son, but I enjoy it immensely.

Inessa Rifkin of Newton is founder and principal of the Russian School of Mathematics.


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6 Responses to Nerdy Russian Math Mom Saves Her Son From The Clutches Of Cool

  1. Maria says:

    Read “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother ” by
    Amy Chua

  2. Doctor V says:

    Thank you for the interesting article. I feel great to be part of the “different crowd”. At times, it is not easy to go through weekly routine of pushing our son to learn more Math while others enjoy TV, the Internet, video games, or go through the episodes of laziness. This article is a very inspirational and helps me, as a parent, to embrace learning as one of the primary goals. In our society, it helps to recognize that making “unpopular” decisions today will pay back in the future where “be not cool” becomes a competitive edge trait, an asset, for the life of our children.

  3. Mike11 says:

    Great article. I really like your blog. When I went to school, we didn’t have any resources such as this. All we had was the teacher and the textbook. My dad was an accountant and I would ask him for help but he talked down to me. He didn’t teach, rather he just said it. He got frustrated and then in turn I did. Teaching is indeed a skill and I think online resources are an amazing tool for those who need extra math help. Now when my kids ask me for math help, I tell them to ask their mother.

  4. Ian Nelson says:

    Great article, Mrs. Rifkin! Myself and so many others are so fortunate to have you, your beloved family and RSM in our lives.

  5. Allen says:

    Mrs. Rifkin, thanks for sharing your personal story. I am now following your footsteps of being a weird, nerdy math and science dad. I can relate to so many things you said in your blog. I was born and educated in China and came to the U.S. in late 1980. I believe China adopted the Soviet Union’s math curriculum in the 1950′s at the peak of the good friendship between two communist governments. I remember working on algebraic word problems in 2nd or 3rd grade. By 5th grade, we were already very versed in some rather complicated algebra problems. Many of us came to the U.S. in the late 1980’s. Twenty-odd years later, our children are now in middle, high school and even college. In the 2013 Mathcounts National Round competition (, based on my calculation, 107 (or 48%) out of 224 participants are children of Mainland Chinese students from the 1980’s and 1990’s. We supplement our children with the logical approach to math (Russian math if you will) that we learned as a student in China. In the Asian American community, Mainland Chinese children dominate the math competitions. Only 16 out of 224 aforementioned Mathcounts competiton are East Asians outside Mainland China that has a less emphasis on logical math and more on memorization and repetition. I differentiate Mainland Chinese vs. other East Asians based on the pinyin spelling of last name used by all Mainland Chinese and other East Asian last name. For every top non-Mainland East Asian student, there are rough 6 to 7 Mainland Chinese children. I believe the curriculum and the approach to math should speak volumes in this.

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