Within the genre of science fiction, there is a whole subgenre called “alternate history,” in which the author imagines how the world might have turned out differently if say Japan had not attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, or if a twenty-first century carrier group were suddenly transported back to the south Pacific of 1942. What if someone started shipping AK-47s to the Confederacy from the present, or if a Yankee wound up in King Arthur’s Court?
On occasion, we’ve probably played the what if game ourselves, wondering how our lives might have turned out had we made different decisions: going to a different college, or accepting a date that we had turned down, or one job offer over another. Sometimes we might think how much fun it would be to return to high school and do it all over again—except knowing what we know now. But most of the time, I think I’m glad I don’t have to do my life over or return to high school.
What has been fascinating for me of late has been contemplating my middle daughter’s experiences, who this past year was a sophomore in high school. One of the courses she wound up taking was a world history course. When she told me, it triggered a lot of memories on my part. Indeed, I remember my sophomore year of high school very clearly. It was a transformative year for me, changing the course of my life and making me the person I am today.
Before I began my sophomore year, I was not thinking about any sort of academic career at all. I imagined myself living alone in the wilderness, building a log cabin and living off the land, dependent upon my own hands to make my way. I planned on taking woodshop and auto shop in high school: practical classes, classes that would help me reach my goal. Instead, when I signed up for my sophomore year courses none of those “practical” classes were available. Only the college prep courses. So instead of auto shop, I wound up in world history. That turned out to be a good thing. I discovered I had a deep interest in the subject. My sophomore class in history led me to ultimately major in history as a college student.
It was also during my sophomore year that I began writing my first novel. I had penned some short stories in junior high, some quite lengthy, but it was during the late autumn of my sophomore year that I sat down and consciously began a process that turned into a full-fledged book. By the end of my sophomore year in high school, I had a three hundred fifty page manuscript. I now keep it in a box and won’t let anyone read it. It’s quite bad, about what you’d expect of a high school sophomore—or of that small subset of sophomores who actually write novels.
My daughter has not, so far as I know, begun writing novels, though she does get A’s in her English class and in her history class, just as I did. She doesn’t enjoy reading quite as much as I did, though she has developed some interest in science fiction. I read mostly science fiction, along with a lot of biographies and autobiographies when I was in high school.
My middle daughter also has a boyfriend. I didn’t have a girlfriend until I was in college. Of course, I was a geek. Her, not so much. She dresses well and looks like a super model. I wore leisure suits after they were no longer in style. My wife and her friends have mostly fixed me.
When I was a sophomore, besides reading, I also built model rockets and launched them; I would occasionally get old radios from rummage sales and try to make them work again. I can remember the smell of the old vacuum tubes warming up, the hum, and tinkering with the innards as I tried and usually failed to get them functioning. Sometimes, however, I was rewarded with static-laden music. But that would usually last only a few weeks before something else would go wrong.
My sophomore year, I began trying unsuccessfully to get my short stories published. I did succeed in getting my first letter to the editor published in the newspaper, however.
So I am not exactly re-experiencing high school with my middle daughter. The differences in her experiences and mine are great; she has access to the internet and to other entertainment choices that I never had. Her interest in music is not the same as mine, but then mine was not the same as my parents, either, so in that respect I guess there is a similarity. And she has no interest in climbing trees or building tree houses.
But I hear the echo of my life as I contemplate hers. It’s not a science fiction trip into an alternate past, but it is a journey into the past remembered.