After a couple of weeks off, we are back with more Strangerville. And in happy news, the Strangerville Podcast is now a part of The Beehive. Pretty much all that means is we've sold our souls and Meg and I are now paid $1,000,000 per episode. That, and we have re-branded.
Please enjoy a truly exceptional story from our most recent Strangerville Live (written version below).
This time in Strangerville, simultaneously the best and worst karaoke to ever travel the seas. Also, a woman takes the Strangerville Live stage to talk about a science fair mishap.
Story: Time Machine, by Alisa Van Langeveld
Production by Eli McCann, Meg Walter, & The Beehive
by Alisa Van Langeveld
When I was 10, I invented a time machine. The machine was cutting edge innovation which I revealed at the 5th grade Science Invention Fair. I was absolutely confident that my big dream was going to wow my friends and my teacher, which was important to me – to wow my teacher because feeling smart in class helped me feel important. I was chasing smart, every day.
I knew my Time Machine would not work…at least not yet. I knew the science to power an operating Time Machine had not yet been invented. But I was confident, that it was only a matter of time before the science would be discovered. That time travel was in our collective, VERY bright future. The future where my classmates and I were encouraged to dream big; because anything was possible, and our success was only as big as our ability to dream it.
I had been taught this very convincingly by the Double Dutch jump rope team at a motivational assembly that fall. They assured me that the future was bright for smart kids who dreamed big. As long as they would also “just say no” to drugs.
During our in-class planning sessions, I drew pictures of a boxy Time Machine with buttons and light bulbs. I felt like I was designing the future. Like Leonardo Da Vinci and his flying machines. Da Vinci drew hundreds of pictures of mechanical devices that could not fly. He knew they could not fly. The science to power those flying machines had not yet been invented. But he dreamed big and his designs paved the way for future scientists who made human flight a reality.
Now I don’t want to overstate my confidence or my innovation, but I felt like a friggin’Da Vinci. Like I was designing the concept of time travel. Future scientists would figure out the mechanics until human time travel was a reality.
The Time Machine consisted of a folding table covered in a bed sheet. I used the folding table from our house which had collapsible legs and the vinyl top of the table was patched together with silver duct tape. The blue bedsheet hung down around the table Colored buttons, made of construction paper cut into shapes, were taped around the sheet in green, red and purple. These buttons served a purpose only future time travel scientists would understand.
Navigation for the Time Machine was managed using a spiral notebook hanging open over the side of the table. I cut the pages of the notebook into 4 vertical sections to make it a flipbook, and wrote a number on each page of each section, from 0 -9. This allowed the time traveler to set the notebook pages to the exact year they wanted to visit, in the future or the past. For example, a visit to Da Vinci in 1485, would line up a 1, in the first section, a 4 in the next section, an 8 and 5, so the year “1485” would be clearly displayed on the front of the Time Machine.
The Time Machine was lit from within, using a bright camping lantern. And the crowning achievement of my design was a bowl of dry ice that would sizzle and bubble and the fog would seep out from under the sheet. This was cutting edge science invention and I was so proud.
If 10-year-old Alisa had been right about the future of Time Travel, then today we might have been able to dial back the navigation notebook to 1990 to see this eager girl. I was extra tall for my age, with long brown hair and had just ditched my pink plastic frame glasses for contacts. I was growing up fast and ready to dream big. I was mostly quiet in school. I had plenty of friends but wasn’t sure where I fit in with them, and I’m not sure they knew where I fit either.
The year before, my parents divorced and I moved with my mom and 4 brothers and sisters to a neighborhood a few miles away, and outside of the school boundaries. We decided to keep going to my old school when meant every morning my mom would drive my little sister and I to school. And every afternoon, the two of us would walk the mile-long route back home. Sometimes we talked and laughed, sometimes I carried her backpack, and other times I threw rocks at her.
As all my siblings made their way home from elementary, junior, or high school, we had strict expectations to call my mom at her new job and report that we were home safe. Once home, we weren’t allowed to leave the house and wander the neighborhood, or play with friends, so we spent afternoons eating raw cake batter and reheated pancakes and watching Duck Tails on TV. It felt pretty great.
But I didn’t see my friends much and I was in a new life where my mom was gone every day after school. She seemed pretty overwhelmed in her new life. She was a single mom with 5 kids, now working full time and just figuring it out. I learned quickly to manage as much of my own stuff as possible - like homework and school projects. I also learned that if I did well at school, my teacher would congratulate me and my mom would be grateful and I would feel smart, and feeling smart felt wonderful.
So, I managed my schoolwork mostly by myself and I chased after feeling smart which is one reason why my mom did not know much about my Time Machine invention. I did ask her to buy dry ice for my Science Fair project and she totally delivered. No questions asked.
On the day of the Science Invention Fair, I collected my Time Machine supplies and loaded them into our wood-paneled minivan. At the school, my sister helped me carry the supplies to the library where piled them against a bookcase and left for our classes.
That morning time moved so slowly! At recess, excited kids talked about their science projects. But not me. I didn’t want to hear any of it. I spent recess at a part of the school fields where I couldn’t hear about anyone’s project. I did not want to ruin my big reveal. Especially the dry ice, which felt like next-level showmanship for a 5th grader.
Finally, after lunch, my class was sent to the library to set up our projects. I smiled as I snapped open the folding table and draped the bed sheet. I hunched my shoulders around the brown bag of dry ice and smuggled it under the table, so no one would see it until it was smoking. The Time Machine was pretty easy to set up so I finished quicker than the other kids and stepped out into the hall to fill up a cup with water for the dry ice. I walked back into the library, smiling and started to look around at the other projects, pretty confident, nothing could compare the Time Machine.
Next to me was Lindsay. She had 8 glass jars lined up across her table. Each was filled with a different color of water and each was holding a slightly tinted carnation.
Colored carnations? Where was the big dreaming there? I had this science fair in the bag.
Across the aisle, was Jared, he had a plate with several peeled, boiled eggs and a few glass soda bottles. Inside one of the bottles was an egg that looked much too large to have been able to fit inside on it’s own. Another bottle had a large egg perched on the narrow top of the bottle. He was demonstrating how heating the bottle would cause the egg to be sucked inside.
I blinked. Hmmm. That’s pretty good.
Erin had a row of pennies, each in front of a baby food jar of different liquid. Some pennies were bright and shiny and some were brown and dingy. She was showing which liquids could clean pennies best.
Ok, that was pretty interesting…and she can show how it works. Today. With real results. Using science from the 1990s.
Things were getting strange. My eyes started to bounce around wildly.
Mindy had magnets, sand and iron fillings. Jed had a large coffee can that had been used to catch rain fall over the last month, and he had charted his results on a poster. Charted. Science. Results. And Dustin. Dustin had a volcano. A working baking soda and vinegar volcano.
I moved my head moved back and forth and took in the whole room.
You mean, the other kids used, like, actual science?
If there was ever a moment when I needed a Time Machine, it was now. I would have dialed in that Navigation Notebook to 2 months earlier and told that Alisa that this was a SCIENCE fair and maybe she should run her idea past her teacher first, and try to use actual science, and that she was not Leonardo Da Vinci and that she probably should not be getting life advice about big dreams from college students who were on a jump-rope team.
But none of that mattered. The Time Machine did not work. I knew it didn’t work.
My teacher announced the start of the fair and asked the students to stand by their projects to demonstrate and answer questions. Questions about the science I was still holding the cup of water. I ducked under the sheet and poured the water over the dry ice. It crackled and bubbled but now, it felt small, not grandiose. Fake, not innovative.
Half of the room was dismissed from their projects to review the others. I was in the group standing by our work first. I breathed in and out, deeply. A few parents had come to help their kids set up their projects or to celebrate the success of what was clearly several months-worth of science work. The kids and adults slowly started walking down the line of student projects.
Isaac was the first to stop at my Time Machine.
“What is that?”
“A Time Machine.”
“How does it work?”
“Well, you set the date you want to visit here by moving these papers. Then you go inside and . . . travel to that time . . .”
“But how do you actually travel there?”
“Well, you travel through time.”
“But that’s not possible.”
“So it doesn’t work?”
“No. it doesn’t work.”
He looked at me. I looked back, blinking. He looked confused. I stared. He walked away.
I stood by my project, answering those same questions to other kids, to parents, to my teacher.
After 15 minutes, we switched sides, but I didn’t go. I climbed INSIDE the Time Machine. I didn’t want to see anyone. I didn’t want to see any projects with real science. I didn’t want to see any students who had understood what was expected, who had told their parents, who had asked for help. Who had done it right.
I waited silently. The dry ice still sputtering and popping. I listened to the science conversations around me. I wished the Time Machine would work and would take me away from this moment.
After 15 minutes, my teacher asked everyone to go back to their own projects.
But, it wasn’t over. It was about to get worse. Now students and teacher from the other grades in the school would be coming through to see our projects. I didn’t move. I stayed inside the Time Machine. After a few minutes, the sheet hanging from the back for the Time Machine lifted. Mrs. Billings, down on her knees, leaned inside. She paused and smiled.
“I was looking for you. Are you ready to come out?”
“Uh, sure” I said without making eye contact and as casually as I could as though there was nothing at all strange about me sitting inside the Time Machine during the Science Fair. She held the sheet back as I crawled out. I felt the student’s eyes on me, but I looked at no one. I heard a whisper. A giggle. I straightened up and stood next to my Time Machine. I stared straight ahead at nothing. I heard the sound of another class coming into the library.
As the first students came closer, I panicked and climbed back into the time machine.
Moments later I saw sneakers stop in front of the table.
“What is THAT”?
“A Time Machine” said Jared from across the aisle.
A long pause. Quiet. I held my breath and closed my eyes, hoping they didn’t know I could hear them.
“Is that smoke?!”
“Ya, it’s from the Time Machine.”
The sneakers moved on. I blinked back tears and smiled and told myself I would be nice to Jared for the rest of his life. Another set of sneakers stopped in front of the table. I poured fresh water on the dry ice. It sizzled and hissed and fog tumbled out of the Time Machine.
I stayed inside the time machine until the last student had passed through and I heard the sounds of cleaning up. I quickly disassembled the components and hid the pieces in the farthest corner of the library.
I looked at Jared and smiled. He smiled and kept working. We didn’t say anything.
On the walk home from school, my sister asked about the Science Fair. She had seen the dry ice and wanted to watch it. I told her that it was bad. That my project was the only one without real science.
I left out details of the other incredible projects, and left out the part about how I spent the whole Science Fair sitting in the Time Machine, wishing that it really did work so I could get out of there, and thinking about how feeling smart made me feel important, so if I had failed so badly at being smart, did that mean I wasn’t important?
She didn’t seem to understand the magnitude of this moment. She was only a 2nd grader. She lagged behind me while we walked.
“Did you get in trouble?” she asked.
“Well, that’s good.”
I slowed down and waited for her to catch up. We walked the rest of the way in silence. When we got home, we called my mom at work to let her know we were home safe. She asked about the Science Fair. I told her it was fine with no details. I got off the phone quickly and turned to my sister. Now it was over. We made some cake batter and turned on Duck Tails.
I largely put the Time Machine out of my mind. I pretended it didn’t happen, until our grading sheets were returned. Just before the bell rang, my teacher walked around the classroom, placing papers face down on everyone’s desk. I waited until after the bell rang and other kids were getting up to leave, before I turned my paper over.
“B- “Great creativity. No science.”
You know one thing they didn’t tell us at the jump rope assembly about dreaming big, is that if you dream big, you also might fail big. Fails are part of the dreaming.
Did this big fail cure me of my drive to chase feeling smart. No, not at all. In fact, it only got bigger. I chased feeling smart, all the way through high school and through 4 years of college and 7 years of grad school. I chased smart all the way through getting a PhD and becoming a professor.
If I could dial up that Time Machine today and go back to visit 10 year old Alisa, I wouldn’t tell her that in 30 years, Time Machines still don’t exist, AND that they would probably never would exist. And I would not tell her that this was the last time she was going to fail. No, no, much bigger failures were on the horizon, but I wouldn’t tell her that either. Because I would still want her to dream big. I would still want her to show up with a duct taped folding table and a bowl of dry ice, absolutely certain that her ideas were going to change the world.
What I would tell her, is that dreaming big is more important than being smart, to stop eating raw cake batter, and that failing big doesn’t really hurt you. Because what’s the worst that could happen?
B-? Great creativity. No science.
~It Just Gets Stranger