When the Student Becomes the Master

I’m lucky to have a teenage son who actually listens to me. Not in a “go hang up your coat” kind of way (we’re still working on that), but other ways. Arguably, more important ways. Corwin has always been an attentive listener when it comes to Stuff He Doesn’t Know. He delights in the particular effervescence of an unexpected and relevant discovery, and is good at stowing that kind of knowledge away for later deployment. It’s how he’s become discursive in things like the distinction between pathos and bathos, the history of the goat as a competitive tool in horse-racing, and the basic principles of Kantian deontology. Given his attentiveness to my nerdiness, I’m either raising the world’s most boring fourteen-year-old, or one who could take over a cocktail party at the Smithsonian. It’s anybody’s guess.

As a tabernacle of useless knowledge, I have swanned through many a social or academic situation. My passion for trivium, my willingness to dive into obscure subjects, my delight over “aha!” moments, my six degrees of separation instinct for looking at how the world works (fueled by way too much time watching Connections and Connections 2 reruns as a kid) may be part genetic and part environmental, but they’re all Corwin. Recently, this has meant coming to grips with something geek parents sometimes struggle with: 

My son has achieved levels of Nerd Expertise not only far greater than mine, but in areas I have no hope of mastering.

I’ve written about being a geek parent before — specifically, about how my daughter’s experience of Star Wars differs from mine, and coming to grips with that being not just okay, but necessary. Lurking in the backstory of that older essay is another fact I don’t think we in the world of sff do a good enough job addressing.

We really, really like to be right. And we especially like it when that means we know more than the people around us.

The man, the myth, the Worst. Fanboy. Ever.

The “we” I’m talking about here is sloppy and general. Not everyone in the sfnal community gets off on “well actually” or “oh, let me tell you all about that,” but a lot of us do. It’s a set of behaviors we’ve coded as male, the prototypical Comic Book Guy move, yet I’ve met more than my share of women who do the same. These are the folks whose sense of their own value in a social interaction is how much authority they bring to it. They find themselves floundering in the face of someone who really does just know more than they do.

And then there’s me. I wanted Corwin to share in that thrill of knowing stuff, so I started him early, sharing every bit of nerd-brain I could muster. Now he’s found a place to direct his hunger to explore and discover minutiae, and it’s clear I’ll never catch up.

Corwin loves Gundam. He loves watching the anime series (Series-es? There are several, though I struggle to distinguish them. He’s on Unicorn now). He loves building the models even more and over the last two years has built up a huge collection of kits, modeling tools, highlighting media, epoxies — the works.

I know nothing about Gundam. (I watched Robotech: Macross back in the day, but I’ve been assured by a certain authority to whom I once gave birth that while this is adorable, it’s not remotely the same thing.) The very way that information about Gundam is structured seems antithetical to how I learn. For example, here’s a list of 2020’s top selling gunpla (that’s “Gundam + plastic” = Gundam mobile suit model kits). My eyes hit the pile of letter/number designations and something like a computer heat sink whirring to life happens in my brain, trying to save me from a burning wave of confusion. There are High Grades and Real Grades, and while a Real Grade is better than a High Grade, a Real Grade is not as good as a Master Grade, and let’s not even get started on a Perfect Grade. 

Cue my mental fans whirring.

And yet, I watch Corwin build his gunpla, camped out at the kitchen table while his dad’s on Playstation and his sister binges The Good Place for the 800th time on her iPad (which is probably where he picked up on deontology, if I’m being realistic), and it’s frankly amazing. He stops and pokes me out of a flurry of grading to show me, in fine detail, how the joints work under the concealment of armored plates, and how the frame beneath is the same chassis as a [lots of words here I don’t understand] but with more points of articulation than a typical [something something letter number]. He’s memorized whole builds — knows the fictional history behind how one mobile suit evolved into the next, and how mobile suit pilots train to use them — and, well, everything.

A good parent should let themselves be taught by their children, at least in some things. The fact that what it takes to be a good parent is at odds with the nervous, grasping, insecure instincts of the sort of geek I’ve often been — a know-it-all, a polymath, and all too proud of it — has been. . . let’s say “instructive.” 

I tried to make interested noises. I thought of questions to ask, trying not to let on that I didn’t understand the answers. Sometimes, I’d just stick with observations: “I like the symmetry here, how the blade on its arm sort of matches this thing over here.” That kind of thing. 

But kids are smart.

Corwin calls his gunpla “diaper robots,” in part because of how the anthropomorphic ones do look like they’ve got some junk in their trunk, and in part because that’s slang from the gunpla building community — the kind of defensive, self-effacing term you adopt because if you tease yourself first, whatever other people say next can’t hurt as much. He’s heard me mutter in confusion over his Christmas and birthday kit requests: “This looks exactly like the last one you got, seriously?” He’s heard my skepticism. He’s watched me grumble about the piles of kit boxes in his closet and their conspiracy to take over his bedroom floor.

When I walked in the room and Corwin was watching a Gundam anime on Netflix, he’d rush to pause the show and ask what I wanted. He’s not a secretive kid. He’s not shy. And he knows me too well to imagine I’d censor his entertainment, if I saw a few minutes of it and things got weird. 

I started to wonder if he was aware of my half-engagement. The answer was obvious, once I tallied up my behaviors, benign and curmudgeonly alike. Of course he knew. He cared about Gundam and his gunpla more than almost anything, and I was, at best, pleasantly nodding along in the face of that passion. Even when sentences started with riveting gems like, “The thing to remember about capitalism is. . .,” he’d always really, truly listened to me. 

Didn’t I owe it to him to do the same?


We were in our basement exercising just the other day, and it was Corwin’s turn to put a couple of miles in on the treadmill. I hopped on the recumbent elliptical, both of us pointed toward the small mounted flat screen that was meant to keep us from giving up too fast out of sheer boredom. Corwin looked bored. 

Worse, he looked like he didn’t want me to be there. 

“Dad’s got the Fire TV stick set up down here,” I pointed out. “You could restart the Gundam anime you’ve been  watching and knock out a couple of episodes.”

It was clearly what he wanted to do. And yet.

“Um. . .”

“Look, if you’re afraid I’ll think the show is dumb or silly or something, I won’t. Honestly.”

Corwin blinked. He’d never said that was what he was afraid of, but I was at least close to the mark. He already had the controller in his hand. He’d wanted to get back to the show, but was embarrassed to watch it in front of me. Maybe because I’d think it was stupid, or —

Worse, because I wouldn’t care.

“I don’t understand the show,” I added quickly, “But I’d like to try, if you’re okay with that. I’m really proud of you, actually.”

The exact title, I have learned, is MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM UNICORN

Fourteen-year-olds are excellent at skepticism. “For having a bunch of diaper robots and being a weeb?”

“For knowing so much about something and caring about it. For having something that’s totally yours. I like seeing you like things.”

Corwin hesitated a moment longer, then queued up the next episode.

“Okay,” I said. “Basic background?”

“Oof. Um, well, it’s a lot, but there are these two factions at war with each other . . .”

Turns out there’s something in the show called Laplace’s Box. It’s the McGuffin everyone is struggling to find. Recognizing the reference, I texted him a link to the concept of Laplace’s Demon when our workout was done. 

Looks like the writers of the show really did their homework.

He sent a gorilla emoji back. 

Don’t ask me to translate that one, I’ve got nothing. 


We talk a lot about how we in the sfnal community relate to one another. We worry about who is silenced and marginalized, about what old habits and ingrained assumptions have driven people away from fandom, about “real sff” or whether such a thing even exists. We have gate-kept, and we have blown gates off their hinges, and begun the cycle anew. We have shamed the “well actually”-s among us and have scolded each other for not listening for expertise where it can actually be found. We want to bring everyone in, no matter where they are in their fandom journey — and we want to see a certain baseline respect for the genre. 

What we don’t talk about enough is a baseline of respect for the habits of mind that are the genre. For the curiosity that makes her love web serials, and him love sub-Reddit culture, and them love alternate history, and all the points of mental adventure between. We celebrate a family of genres, and yet don’t respect the off knowledge, curiosity, inventiveness, and associative leaps that make them all part of the same intellectual family treat. Whose knowledge, curiosity, inventiveness, and associations do we value? And why can’t the answer be “everyone’s”?

So, I’m doing my part.  I’m trying to learn Gundam. Lucky for me, Corwin’s a patient teacher. I’m not sure I’ll thrive in the pursuit the way he did, absorbing all of my nonsense. But I can try. I can show him I appreciate his mastery and be the one doing the listening. It’s a habit we all need to cultivate.