Sunday, October 23, 2011

Until They're Not

In September 1969 I began my education career. I was 21 and looked 16. I was teaching English to 17 and 18 year old seniors at Kennett Junior/Senior High School in Kennett Square, PA.  A moratorium peace demonstration against the war in Vietnam drew massive numbers in Washington, DC and other cities. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Easy Rider were playing at the drive-in.  A little, four day festival in Woodstock, NY had drawn 350,000 people only the month before, and a new TV show called Sesame Street was on National Educational Television (later to become PBS).  Jimmy Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and Simon and Garfunkel were on the radio. Lloyd Alexander (who would later speak to one of my classes at Upper Darby High School and go on to endorse my writing) won the Newbery Award for The High King. A postage stamp was 6 cents, gas was 32.9 cents a gallon, and the median household income was $9,302.

It was a time of excitment and worry and change. Hair, including mine, was growing longer. Skirt lengths were growing shorter. I was spanking brand new and eager to try untried things.

One day, I presented this quote from Jules Verne in class: "Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real."

"Your assigment," I said, with all of the confidence I could muster, "is to think ahead 25 years and come up with a new invention or a radical change on a current one. It has to be feasible and doable in 1994. You'll think through how it will work, who might buy it, and what it might cost. You'll have graphics or a working model, and you have to present your invention orally to the class."

I had no idea how this assignment would fly. I met with each student in advance to approve their original concept, and helped them, as best as I could, with their research. There was no internet then, although that's not quite true. ARPANET, the precursor of the internet, came online in 1969 to connect UCLA, Stanford Research Institute, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah.

Forty two years later, it has been my fascination and delight to remember the incredible inventions that hundreds of students at Kennett Junior/Senior High School, Upper Darby High School and Strath Haven Middle School presented to me and their peers. Many were prophetic, insightful and remarkable in their scope. These came from honors students and struggling students. They worked solo with me or had help from parents, grandparents and neighbors. Their drawings were complex or simple. And, sometimes, their audiences hooted with laughter at the seemingly outrageous concepts that these student dreamers were proposing to them.

I don't know if any members of those classroom audiences will recall those speeches, but, if they do, they won't be laughing now. Here are some of those seemingly implausible ideas that I heard for the first time from middle school and high school kids decades before they came to pass:

* Build a larger version of a toy, remote controlled airplace and attach video capability for recon on military missions in remote area. When the student inventor suggested arming them for combat missions, the class suggested that he had some screws loose. UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) have played a major role in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last 10 years, as well as saving countless lives in wilderness rescues.

* Construct a rail on which a train would glide quickly and with little sound on magnetic levitation. There would be no conventional engines, no standard fuels, and no side rail or overhead wires. A number of students declared that this was impossible to pull off and would never happen. I wonder if any of them have ridden on the Maglev trains in Europe and Asia.

* Replace silicon chips in computers with light-driven sources and conduits of information. This was 18 years before I had heard of FIOS. And, the world's first photovoltain circuit was invented last year at the Univ of PA.

* Develop a steering system that would allow automobiles to assist in parking themselves in tight urban settings. Toyota introduced the IPAS (intelligent Parking Assist System) in 2004.

* Place wind collectors above signage on interstate highways so that tractor trailers, buses and other large vehicles would provide a constant source of wind energy to convert for lights on the road. Not yet invented, to my knowledge.

The list goes on and on, with many students over the last several years predicting holographic images projected from classroom walls, time travel to places of historical interest, and communication devices embedded inside our bodies. Electronic readers for E-Books, IPhones, and IPads are not revolutionary to them. They anticipate that their backpacks will completely disappear with DVDs and E-Books replacing their heavy textbooks. On-line college courses are standard fare, and cyber schools are commonplace.

For me, it is all revolutionary. The lastest issue of The Authors Guild Bulletin is devoted to apps. Before that, it was about the influence of digital publishing on conventional paper publishing. Borders bookstores are no more. Amazon and dozens of other sites offer free digital publishing with attractive royalities. The very length of writing is being influenced by the size of the screens of cell phones. Publishers and literary agents are scrambling to make sense of this reshaping of the delivery of text to readers. The fact that minutes after I type this, this blog can be read by anyone in the world with access to the web, is mind blowing to me.

And, I am delighted by it! In the very near future, I will be releasing my first digital book. My son, Jim, a MICA graduate and prize winning illustrator, is creating the cover. I hope to follow this first digital book with many more.

Had someone told me in 1969 that I would be communicating with people from Canada to China by electronic means through a digital format, I, like many of my former students, would have laughed at them. But, as Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the fabled USS Enterprise, said: "Things are only impossible until they're not."

Copyright (2011) by James Hugh Comey

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