Countless middle-aged citizens have attended class reunions to find, to their surprise, that the people they had laughed at and ridiculed could buy and sell the rest of the bunch.

Then they have learned that the football hero is driving a bread truck and the pretty cheerleader, the campus queen, lives in a trailer with her four children from two failed marriages.Several years ago I was reached by a book publisher who wanted to do a project on the motivations of successful people. He wanted to know what drove them and why they were successful.

The plan was that his people would do the research and I would write it up into a manuscript.

He sent me a sample of the material, which included biographies of 15 people - nine men and six women who had distinguished themselves in business, the professions, the arts and public service.

We couldn't agree on the direction that the book should go. Eventually I gave him a thanks-but-no-thanks and moved on to another project. To my knowledge, the book was never published.

I came across this material recently. In my second review of these movers and shakers, I found something that grabbed me.

The publisher had wanted everything to hinge upon some kind of positive thinking, triumph-of-the-will spirit that would bind these people into one big formula for success. It wasn't there, and I couldn't make it happen.

But this time, I found a link, and it had nothing to do with positive thinking.

All of these movers and shakers claimed to be nerds in high school, in many cases right through into college.

Some said that they were not ''popular.'' Others reported that they didn't date much, if at all, and couldn't remember having much of a social life.

None of them had participated in school-related activities. None had held any kind of student body office. All were good students. It culminated in a common nerdiness.

I think that I have uncovered some kind of truth here.

The teen-age nerd is almost always the one with the potential, someone who is more intellectually and emotionally mature - or thinks larger than the rest of the pack.

While their peers are agog over the news that Cindy Lou is wearing Ricky's letter jacket, the nerd is wondering if light rays can really bend.

We are not talking science here, or indisputable social laws - only probabilities.

There is no assurance that the kid with the funny haircut and the calculator affixed to his belt is going to become a captain of industry. But the odds are far better than for those who graze with the herd.

These latter are often in training to become perpetually shallow, spending the rest of their lives looking back on the happiness of high school. We see one of the great tragedies of life when someone crests at 17.

Anyone wanting to lend some credence to this hypothesis has but to seek out a man or woman who has risen above the crowd with a record of solid accomplishment. Then ask the question: Were you a nerd in high school?

The answer will probably be yes.

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