My snobbery began in third grade, at Pioneer Valley Montessori School. That was when I ceased writing my name as "Mark" in the upper-right corners of my papers and instead began writing "Mark the Great." I remember precisely why I donned this new epithet: It was because my teacher that year, a young novice named Lisa, hated me.
Lisa practically seethed in my presence. One reason was that I talked back. Not in a rude way, I think, but in an insistent and articulate way. I had a very wide vocabulary for an 8-year-old boy, I loved argument, and I was deeply suspicious of much of the school's Montessori pedagogy. Time lines, for example: Why were we supposed to learn history by unscrolling a piece of paper, lying on the floor, and using pencils to draw a long line with hash marks representing various dates in, say, American history? I would ask Lisa questions like "Wouldn't it make more sense to just read a history book?" And Lisa, fresh from her Montessori certification, flush with the convert's zeal, hated that kind of impudence.
So she would yell at me, or tell me to go away, or—on one memorable occasion—inform me that none of my classmates liked me. In that instance, she proved her point by calling for quiet in the classroom and then demanding, "Anyone who likes Mark Oppenheimer, raise your hand!" When my stunned classmates failed to raise their hands, she looked at me as if to say, "See?"
So in this toxic and topsy-turvy environment, where my gifts were liabilities, my survival strategy was to valorize my skills—to become snobbish about them. Lisa was determined to show me I was nothing, so I decided that I was everything, and that the ability she hated most in me was the one I could be proudest of. I became Mark the Great! And I fear that it was then, in third and fourth grade, that I began to see less articulate classmates as inferior.
What I had always perceived as just the natural variegation of young people—I was a good talker, some children were good at sports, others were good at making friends—became a hierarchy of abilities, with me at the top. Nothing was more important than being good with words; of slightly lower value were other kinds of academic gifts, such as being good with numbers (Eli Brandt could do long division in third grade); lower still was being a gifted athlete; a bit lower, but still admirable, was owning an Atari video-game system, as a sweet, pudgy boy named Michael did; below that was mere unearned popularity.
I had, in fact, turned the normal childhood hierarchy on its head, persuading myself that the cool kids were worthless, that video games mattered less than math skills, and that nothing was cooler than being able to talk like an adult. The wisenheimer was king!
So far, this was a schoolyard, junior-varsity Lord of the Flies version of snobbery. It did not intersect at all with the class-based snobbery, present in every society, that the English writer P.N. Furbank calls "the unholy pleasure." My pecking order had nothing to do with money, breeding, education, or ethnicity. It was fairly benign, and it would have appeared more so with time: An adult who thinks that being smart is the most important thing is—so long as he keeps his opinions within his household and the domus of close friends and relatives—not a terrible guy. In a society that worships sports, money, and power, he's even a bit countercultural.
It is not unusual for snobberies to begin as self-defense—they are almost necessarily the province of minority groups worried that they might any day be vanquished: The landed English were surrounded by the peasants, the educated Ivy Leaguers by hoi polloi. Beneath the airs of superiority one can quickly discern the grounding of insecurity. After all, if the war comes, sheer numbers dictate that the snobs will lose. And given how much of the snobs' privilege is unearned, their snobberies can also be seen as strategies of obfuscation, enabling them not to see the important injustices that their cherished order perpetrates. Consider the banker who refuses to hire people with working-class accents: Because they sound as if they lack money, he deems them unworthy of making money.
But self-protective armor can be used in the offensive, too; judgment nearly always turns judgmental. Nobody likes to relinquish a snobbery, even when it becomes safe to venture forth without it. When I left the Montessori school for New North Community School, a big, ugly, but very happy public school where I was to spend fifth and sixth grades, I was quickly welcomed into the culture of my new classroom and immediately found a raft of friends: buck-toothed Craig Nicholson; Jheri-curled Steven Barnes; hapless, cow-licked Billy Burke; athletic, preppy, Esprit-wearing Tammy Duchesne. And yet it was among those decent, generous, accepting souls that my snobberies multiplied.
By the time I graduated from New North, I was preening about more than my verbal ability. I had become, in my mind, an aristocrat, my superiority evident in my bloodlines, my parents' education, my clothes, my pronunciation of words, my taste in reading, and even my haircut (I had a goofy bowl cut, which I deemed nobler than my classmates' buzz cuts or proto-Kid 'n Play creations). Even though I was happier than before, I was, like all 10- or 11-year-olds, still very much unbalanced, unsure of where to plant my feet in the world. So I looked all around, and steadied myself with fragile certainties that whatever I did, it made me better than those around me.