Planning My Future — Back In 1962

This blog entry is now included as a part of Resisting the Challenges of the 21st Century

I was attending sixth grade at West Side Elementary School in June of 1962.  Our teacher was Mr. Dunham, and for the most part, I thought he was a great teacher.  About a week before classes ended and we graduated to classes at Cold Spring Harbor High School he sat on his desk, looked around at the class, and gave us one final assignment to complete.

“I want you to take out a piece of paper and write down what you expect to do for a living when you finish school,” was all the direction we got from him.   He then started stalking up and down the aisles in the classroom, peeking at our progress.

I sat there and gave it as much thought as I could since it was a topic I hadn’t really spent any time on at all.  The library was one of my favorite places at the school, and I had torn through all the Chip Hilton sports books and Duane Decker’s stories about the Blue Sox, and those were exciting to me.  Sadly, given that I had not yet had a growth spurt and was not particularly strong or fast, it was unlikely I had a future in professional sports.

Once I ran out of sports books, I had also discovered a few books by Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov (aka Paul French) and Robert Heinlein and continued from there to devour all the science fiction I could get my hands on.  Space exploration was even more exciting than sports, but since I nearly threw up on the Teacup ride at Disneyland I was pretty sure physically going into space was not in my future.  While fighting my way through the non-fiction stacks in the library, I had also discovered that I had an affinity for math, so working on the Space Program seemed like a reasonable future pastime.  The only remaining concern was figuring out the destinations of the rockets I’d be working on.

A year earlier the United States had put its first astronaut in space when Alan Shepard, Jr. spent a little more than 15 minutes in a suborbital flight.  Almost immediately after that accomplishment, President Kennedy had declared the start of a program to put a man on the Moon, something that almost surely would happen by the end of the decade.  The country had managed to put John Glenn into orbit earlier in 1962, so we were obviously on track.  A little more thought and I had my future mapped out:

In the future, I will help with the math that puts our spaceships into space. I should be deeply involved in designing the ships that can reach Mars by the end of the century and then start exploring the asteroid belt.  With any luck, I’ll still be involved in the space program when we finally reach the moons of Jupiter.

I put my name on the page and handed it in when Mr. Dunham came around and collected the sheets.

I had no way of knowing the mistake I had made.

Mr. Dunham sat down at his desk and quickly glanced at the pages we had all written, sometimes nodding and sometimes shaking his head.  And then he got to mine.

“Rembert, please bring another piece of paper and your pen and come out into the hall with me.”  He got up and moved to the door, carrying just my sheet of paper with him.

What could I possibly have done to deserve being singled out over my carefully planned future?  Once we got outside of the classroom, he carefully closed the door, and turned to me with a very disappointed look on his face.  “I wanted you to take this assignment seriously.  Please go down the hall and sit at one of the tables and try again.  I expect better from you this time.”  He almost looked angry, so I quickly slinked down the hall and repositioned myself in one of the desks that lined the walls.

I don’t know how long I sat there, grasping in vain for inspiration.  No jobs came to mind that I didn’t reject immediately.  I thought about falling back on professional sports, but I was pretty sure that would land me back at a desk in the hall again.  I pondered several other careers, but none of them made any sense after soundly convincing myself that I needed to be working in the Space Program.

Finally, I stopped taking the assignment seriously, and then inspiration hit and I scribbled my alternate future.  It did seem somewhat familiar…

In the future, I will write stories about the struggles of a man who helps create the math that puts our spaceships into space.  He will be deeply involved in designing the ships that can reach Mars by the end of the century and then start exploring the asteroid belt.  He will struggle to live long enough and stay involved in the space program until we finally reach the moons of Jupiter.

With a definite feeling of triumph, I returned to the classroom and handed in my earliest successful writing.  This time Mr. Dunham smiled and nodded and let me take my seat again.

Three takeaways from my encounter with inspiration:

  1. It’s easier to sell yourself as a writer than as a rocket scientist.
  2. If you’re stuck for something to write about, simply sit in a quiet place all by yourself with nothing but a pen and a piece of paper and just start writing about the first thing that comes to mind.  Don’t worry about the results. Don’t worry about selling what you’ve written until after you finish writing, and if you can’t sell what you’ve written simply write something else.
  3. In 1969 we landed on the Moon; now we probably can’t even circle the Moon, let alone visit Mars. When reality lets us down, we can always write about what should have been, be it science fiction, history, or even romance.

I’m not the only one who ever struggled with the future:  Back in Time by Huey Lewis and the News