Reader Request Week 2019 #8: 13-Year-Old Me
Posted on November 21, 2019 Posted by John Scalzi 16 Comments
Judge Zedd asks:
One of my students asked me a question the other day: What would 13 year old you think of your life now? It really got me thinking about the unexpected path my life has taken, and some things that 13 year old me would have been heartbroken about, but adult me is more than okay with (my eyes betraying my dreams of becoming a fighter pilot, for example). I have been asking this of my close friends, and learned a lot about them in the process. So now, I pose the question to you. What would 13 year old John Scalzi think of 2019 John Scalzi’s life?
I suspect he’d be very surprised about the lack of hair.
And actually 13 years old is an interesting time to ask me about. I was 14 when I decided I was going to be a writer (thanks to an assignment for my freshman composition class where I was the only person in three sections to get an “A” for something I threw together at literally the last minute, thus setting a writing trend I have yet to break totally free of). Thirteen was basically the last age where I didn’t have a plan for what to do with my life. I had wanted to be an astronomer, but by 8th grade, which where I was at 13, it was pretty clear that math and I were not exactly getting along, so astronomy was likely not in cards, which left me a bit adrift. To be clear, I wasn’t having an existential crisis about it — I was 13 and so not exactly freaking out about what I should be doing with my life. But I still didn’t know.
When I was 13, my home life was relatively stable; I had friends and I liked school and was generally happy. All of that was relatively recent, however — things had been shaky for a while before that. Thirteen was also the year before I went to Webb, the private boarding school that materially changed the trajectory of my life. In short, 13 was a year that had me in flux with my life, and being 13, and not actually psychic, I had not a single idea that this was the case.
So, wake up 13-year-old me and escort him into a time portal where he could see what 50-year-old me was up to with his life. What would he think? As a guess:
* Probably a little surprised that he’d become a novelist, because it’s not really something that was much on his radar at that point.
* But, probably happy that he’d become a science fiction writer, because he’d been reading rather a lot of that stuff at the time. Also, he did know what the Hugo was by that point, so he would have been smug he’d picked up a few of those.
* Would be wondering how the hell he landed in Ohio, because, dude, he was a Californian all the way.
* Then would have seen a picture of Krissy and understood.
* Also I think he’d be amazed that he’d been married for twenty four years at that point, because, how to phrase this, he didn’t exactly have a whole lot of positive role models for long-term domestic felicity.
* Likewise would be impressed I’d stayed in one place for 18 years, since at 13, he’d had more homes than he’d had birthdays (and had also at that point had been briefly homeless).
* Really, stability in general would just impress the heck out of him.
* I think he’d like, and possibly be intimidated just a smidge by, his future daughter.
* He’d otherwise be pleased with the people he’d not yet gotten to know but would get to know in his life. And also pleased that some friends he did already he’d keeping his whole life long.
* And if I really wanted to blow his mind, I would let him know that he’d met and was pals with Alison Moyet, because “Only You” was already one of his favorite songs of all time.
In general — except for the hair thing, which would be, like, a real bummer for him, although I would assure him it wasn’t all that bad in practice — I think 13-year-old me would like where life would be taking him, and who he got to take along with him in that life.
And since of course we’d have to wipe his memory before we sent him back, if there was one thing I could tell him that he’d get to keep (even if he didn’t know where it had come from), it would be: Don’t worry. Be who you are. Because who you are gets you here. And here, 50-year-old me can tell you, is pretty good.
And who knows? Maybe 13-year-old was told that. And look where he and I are today. I wouldn’t change any of it.
13-year-old me would not be surprised I turned out to be a scientist, or that I would still be a science fiction fan, because 13-year-old me mostly read (1) SF and (2) science fact. Nor would 13-year-old me be surprised that most of my hair is gone, because 13-year-old me had seen what happened to my father’s hair. And it would not have come as a huge surprise to 13-year-old me that my wife is also (1) a scientist and (2) an SF fan.
13-year-old me might be mildly surprised that current me lives in Eastern Iowa, but that would not have been a huge shock because I was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin which is just a few hours’ drive from here. 13-year-old me would have been startled to learn that before moving back to the Midwest I’d have spent many years up and down the East Coast including 26 years in Connecticut.
13-year-old me would have been surprised to learn the FIELD of science in which I have spent most of my career, Bioinformatics, because there was no such field as Bioinformatics in the early 1970s.
And 13-year-old me, who watched the Watergate scandal with close attention, would have been shocked and saddened to learn 2019 would include an even worse scandal!
13 year old me had just moved back to the US after living overseas (South Africa and Singapore) since age 5. 13 year old me was attending middle school in Texas and suffering from extreme culture shock (I showed up for my first day of 6th grade in 1979 wearing a plaid skirt, knee socks, and penny loafers). 13 year old me had absolutely zero thoughts about the future and just wanted to be able to survive the day and figure out where and who the heck I was.
If you had asked 13 year old me, I’d probably have said some kind of job, marriage, and kids were in my future.
I wouldn’t recognize my 51 year old self, I’m pretty sure.
13 year old me would say, “You still listen to punk? You’re a cool MFer. Also, nice beard.”
Thanks for answering, John! I think the two of us had had some very similar instability in our younger lives, and 13 year old me would likewise be shocked that 46 year old me has been married for 23 years, in the same house for 22, has a 14 year old daughter (I thought I didn’t want kids) and still in New York State – back then I wanted to get as far away from the reminders of that instability as possible, and begged to be sent to military school!
Most shocking would be that I became a teacher. In 8th grade, we took a vocational aptitude test. The #2 career choice on mine was secondary teacher (#1 was psychiatrist/psychologist/counselor). Oh, what a laugh we all had! I laughed. My friends laughed. Not only did my teachers laugh, the teacher who administered the tests used my results as an example of how we could not always put much stock in these results. See, I was not the most well behaved student. Academically, I did very well. Combine my getting bored easy with acting out due to my bad home life, and I was well beyond class clown. By high school, I had settled down some, but myself and others expected me to get in on the growing computer boom after a stint in the Air Force.
Yet here I am, and happy to be here! I had to drop out of the ROTC program due to a lack of promised transportation to weekly classes. I HATED coding in my comp sci classes. I started on a pre law track. I took education courses wanting to sharpen my pedagogical skills in case I taught college some day, and fell in love with teaching. I even had to fight my college mentor over my choice, as he thought secondary education to be a waste.
I think this is why I always tell my students to not worry too much about having their whole life planned out yet. There’s a world of opportunities and experiences out there they haven’t even imagined yet, and if they play their cards right, they will find their place in the world.
13 yr old me would be amazed that I was still alive.
How can your banner not have a mouse over?
that was 13 year old me.
You have a nice SF short story that could be written with this premise…
13 year old me would be giddy that i was alive and out of that place.
I don’t even remember 13-year-old me, but I’m pretty sure I was still failing miserably at pretending to be human, which I’m now pretty good at (for hours at a time if necessary, but fortunately since retirement, that’s seldom necessary).
13 year old/8th grade me is an interesting choice as well. My “childhood”, such as it was, also had an abbreviated aspect. My eldest daughter was conceived when I was 15 and born when I was 16. I was married shortly after my 16th birthday. Times before 13 had been especially challenging for a confluence of factors. I experienced 9 of the 10 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and by the time I was 13 the only one of those 9 I had not yet accumulated was sexual abuse. Those experiences were entangled with my pervasive experience as a (thankfully in the 70s when we tended to be institutionalized) unrecognized autistic child. That influences a lot of things, but it’s hard to explain to those who have never experienced it how hard it is when you not only lack but lack the ability to acquire many of the unconscious and “natural” social skills others hardly ever even think about. This thread today hit home for me. It captures elements of one of my deepest pains, even at 54 years old.
But 8th grade, despite all the challenging things that were still occurring at home, marked probably the best year of my childhood. Admittedly, that’s a pretty low bar. But it’s the year where all the voice training, study and practice of expressions and body language, and actual acting training that I had started on my own in 4th grade finally came together. Still pictures of me from that year are the first where I look pretty indistinguishable from those around me. I had some friends and was more or less tolerated by most others.
The following summer before 9th grade, my mother moved us again, away from my adopted father, from inside the loop of Houston to a very small town in a very poor country in the Ozarks in northwest Arkansas. That was a … hard year in a host of different ways.
But like you, Scalzi, I’m bemused by those who look back at their childhood and see things they want to change. I would not have the spouse I have and my children and grandchildren would not exist if much had changed. Those experiences were hard and affect me to this day, but those people are the best parts of my life. I wouldn’t trade them to have had an “easier” time.
And 13 year old me was incredibly strong even though he rarely felt strong, as was 10 year old me, and 7 year old me. I see that so clearly even though they couldn’t. I have no words of wisdom, no insight granted by age. They found a way to make it through. They were pretty amazing. I don’t feel either strong or amazing today. I feel worn down and like I’m barely getting through some days. But I remember that’s often how they felt too. It’s sometimes hard to see yourself when you’re in the midst of life.
I guess I rambled, but this one brought a lot to my mind. Thanks for sharing it.
Quite honestly, I think 13 year old me would be horrified that I no longer watch General Hospital.
I can’t imagine having different kids and so on either, but I think that’s a failure of my own imagination, not an indication that every bad thing that led up to a good thing was actually necessary. Good coming out of bad is necessary if the whole world is not to be poisoned by the ramifications of one bad thing happening. It doesn’t mean that every bad thing was a “fortunate fall,” and we couldn’t have had as good or better things happen otherwise.
Like 13 year old you, I too loved “Only You.” Still do.
30-odd years later, my band covered it for charity.
I have never met Alison Moyet, although I saw her perform a few years ago, and she’s magnificent. Possibly even better now than she was years ago. Vince seems like a genuinely good dude, too.
I’ve had the same thought, but about 18 year old me and not 13 yo me. The reason? 18 year old me (HS graduate, setting out on my own) was when I began to have real control over my life with authority to make decisions that 13 yo me didn’t have.
18 yo me would think I had turned out well. Professionally, personally, family, financially, intellectually. There are a lot of direct threads between him and me where you can see how the end reflects the beginning.
HelenS, it’s not a failure of imagination on my part, at least. I have imagined all sort of outcomes. More than that, as a young child I’m learning on of my survival mechanisms was derealization. For me that took the form of a feeling that I was not awake, that I was in a dream. And even at that age, I would try to work out where I would be, what age I would be, when I woke up from the dream. As I moved on from that defense mechanism to others as I grew up, I retained a fascination with exploring what I could perceive of possibilities.
The chaos, moves, and experiences I had influenced, shaped, and constrained the choices I had available to me and my entire state of being and frame of reference when I made those choices throughout my teenage and early adult years. There’s a direct thread through all of them, not least where I physically was at certain times, and a host of indirect influences and pressures, some I see and many which I’m sure I don’t. Sure, relatively minor things could have changed without making major differences in the outcomes, but even that is difficult to predict. But in many cases I would not have been in the geographic location I was in without the preceding events, I would not have been the person shaped and formed by my experiences to make the choices, good and bad, that I made, and it’s not clear I would have even had similar choices presented to me. In some cases, I’m as certain as one can be that I wouldn’t have had anything like the same choices to make. Our ability to choose in any given moment is a lot more constrained than many people like to recognize. The whole universe of options is rarely open to us. Much of the time, we have a pretty narrow window of “choice”. Wealth does help expand that window significantly.
Our hardest experiences also, for good and bad, shape the person we become and inform the person we are in the present moment. I have struggled with not wanting to be here since I was a child. This article by Anna Borges really resonated deeply with me.
One major aspect of the ways I manage it is keeping those moments of pure joy available so I can experience them again. And the greatest and most enduring of those are those moments I first held each of my children. I’m not interested in a life that is “just as good” with different people in my life and different children.
If I had not had the chaotic family I had, there is virtually no chance I can see I would have ended up in the rural Ozarks for my teenage years. A version of me who had not experienced the pain of abuse and neglect, including the sexual abuse from my early teen years, and who had not lived a life filled with social rejection and attack as an autistic child, is extremely unlikely to have made the “choices” that led me to become a young teen parent and husband. Had I not gone through that experience, it’s unlikely I would have joined the National Guard and encountered my abusive second wife as my teen marriage was falling apart. Without her, my older son would not exist and it’s unclear I would have ended up in Austin where, in the aftermath of that second marriage, I met my wife of the past three decades. All the people in my life who matter so much to me are inextricably linked to those events and experiences.
Career doesn’t matter much to me and I might have ended up just fine with some other completely different career, but I’ve had a good one and I’m pretty much at the top of the one I have now. More importantly though, I met my wife at that job in its early years. So it is linked directly to a significant portion of those important people.
My imagination is fine. I can imagine being a completely different person with a completely different life without much difficulty. I can trace all sorts of alternate paths my life could have taken.
I don’t want a different life. I want this life and this world with these specific, unique, and wonderful children of mine in it.
And I feel 13 year old me inside agreeing strongly with me. Imperfect, flawed, difficult as it might often be, love, acceptance, and family were his deepest desires even then.