So, for this year’s Community Novel Project, we are writing a collection of alternative history and speculative fiction stories set in Topeka, KS. I wrote my story in an intense few days in mid-April. This is the first draft, and it is currently open to feedback from peer writers before revision. While I love writing fiction and hanging out with fiction writers and reading fiction, I very, very rarely revise or share my own fiction writing. That isn’t the fun part for me. But, that said, this whole process of having actual reader feedback and then improving the story from that feedback has been interesting. I don’t want to post spoilers first, so look for more commentary after the story:
Login successful 4/14/2026 Discussion Board Population=2
ENGLISH LIT 499-SELF-GUIDED DISCUSSION BOARD
TOPIC: EMMA BY JANE AUSTEN, BRITISH LITERATURE
ThomasG.:I did not find this story of youthful hubris and the perils of misconstrued romance to be my particular cup of tea.
KateP: DUDE. If you copy and paste from wikipedia, use quotation marks and a citation. And referencing tea doesn’t make your answer more British.
KateP: How am I supposed to receive the benefits of a quality public secondary education online if my peer group is completely lacking?
ThomasG: Pardon me. The book is an archaic 211 years old. The concerns and difficulties of genteel women in 1815 Britain are no longer relevant in 2026 Kansas.
ThomasG: And in case you haven’t figured it out, the anti-plagiarism software only checks whole sentences, not phrases.
KateP: Again with the wikipedia. Did you even read this book? Seriously. Did you? Did you casually swipe through the pages on the ebook for the completion credit while actually watching a vid?
ThomasG: I read it. Duh. Although it was weeks ago and no one has ever posted in this discussion board before.
ThomasG: These English credits fill my graduation requirements with less hassle than any course with a virtual lab or -heaven forbid – groupwork. The reading and quizzes are no trouble, but requiring 20 posts on a discussion board that no human will ever read is already trying my patience.
KateP: I’m human. You quote from wikipedia and you don’t like people. And yet here we are discussing literature in our free time. This day just keeps getting better.
ThomasG: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Was Jane Austen describing you here? Or would even Austen deign to find you likeable?
KateP: Quoting the first line isn’t proof of anything resembling comprehension. And personal attack is unnecessary. I’m sure Jane Austen would find me to be a delight.
ThomasG: Austen liked EMMA. She’s baseless and tasteless. Okay, pop quiz time. Which of these characteristics best describes you:
- Handsome b. clever c. rich d. spoiled e. headstrong f. self-satisfied
Just seethe silently if your answer is “all of the above.”
KateP: That wasn’t silent seething. I was just speechless. Didn’t you learn anything from this book?
ThomasG: This book is irrelevant in our modern world. It tells me that career-wise a man can be a lawyer, doctor, businessman, or vicar.
ThomasG: We both know that our illustrious online public school isn’t the path to any of those professions, not anymore. A private tutor isn’t such an anachronism in 2026. Plenty of rich kids have them.
ThomasG: In fact, this book firmly reminds us that that we are in the working classes, the people who are almost invisible in Austen’s world.
ThomasG: So why do you or I even need to complete secondary education to take our place among the laboring class?
KateP: Rant much? And you know even the entry level jobs require a diploma now.
ThomasG: Honest discussion isn’t ranting. And the truth about the dismantled public education system hurts.
ThomasG: The diploma isn’t an accomplishment or a rite of passage, it’s just one more way to oppress and control us.
ThomasG: What community service did you do during daylight today?
KateP: Point taken. At least my school issued device screen looks great in the dark, since that’s the only time I log in.
ThomasG: Are you avoiding the question? Or are you too rich and spoiled to have a service assignment?
KateP: Ouch! I didn’t realize we had moved into true confession time.
KateP: No, I pay for school with my community service hours just like everyone else.
KateP: And if you must know, today I harvested mixed greens and lettuce for 5 hours. What about you?
ThomasG: Good thing you’re young, since that sounds backbreaking. I pollinated apples by hand, 2 hours on foot and 3 hours off a bucket truck.
KateP: Ha! You’re quite the sex machine. And such stamina!
ThomasG: I prefer “fertilization specialist”.
ThomasG: And not to redirect you away from flirting with me too much, but back to the book we are supposedly discussing here. What about relationships?
ThomasG: The romantic take-away of Emma is that your true love is likely almost twice your age and already your brother-in-law.
ThomasG: How was anyone supposed to meet anyone else in Austen if they didn’t already know them?
KateP: Much like my life, where the only people my age that I see are down the agriculture row from me, or across the aisle of the transport bus.
KateP And conversation is discouraged, always. How is anyone supposed to meet anyone else in Topeka if they don’t already know them?
ThomasG: You can meet people at dances. Austen is all about the first impressions at country assemblies, you know.
KateP: That’s Pride and Prejudice, not Emma. How many Austen books have you read?
ThomasG: All of them. You can check the discussion boards.
ThomasG: I believe that you and I are the only secondary students in public online school in Kansas to read a book by Jane Austen in the last 5 years.
KateP: That’s so sad. Why?
ThomasG: With thousands of public domain books to choose from, students choose shorter books and modern language as the easy way out.
ThomasG: What character deficiency are you trying to remedy by choosing Emma? Do you look like her AND act like her?
KateP: I call phishing on that question. If you’re going to compare me to Emma, then let me ask a personal question.
KateP: Are you actually 37 years old like George Knightly?
ThomasG: As poorly-monitored as this educational discussion board is, I assume they still screen for that. They may not hold us responsible for what we type, but they don’t want anyone to hold them responsible for any of this either.
ThomasG: The great migration to self-directed online-only education is all about the plausible deniability of everyone involved. Emma isn’t the only intentionally clueless one.
KateP: This is the best literature discussion I’ve ever had.
KateP: I can’t believe I’m going to type this, but I wish we could meet in person.
ThomasG: You need to get out more.
ThomasG: You assume I’m not willing to meet? Or you assume we aren’t in the same town?
KateP: What?!? Yes, I assumed both. Sorry?!?! I just clicked your profile and see we are both in Topeka.
KateP: Can you get to the downtown farmer’s market on Saturday?
ThomasG: 8 am at the cider press?
ThomasG: How will I know it’s you? Will you be attractively posed like Harriet in Emma’s watercolor painting?
KateP: I’ll be the clever, headstrong girl with the obvious character deficiencies.
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Login successful 4/28/2026 Discussion Board Population=2
ENGLISH LIT 499-SELF-GUIDED DISCUSSION BOARD
TOPIC: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE BY JANE AUSTEN, BRITISH LITERATURE
ThomasG: I appreciate that the status-conscious friend, Mr. Darcy, is disdainful of local society, as he reflects my own views.
KateP: Let me counter your generic wikipedia with this relevant quote from the novel: “I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.”
ThomasG: If we lived in Austen’s time we probably would never have met. And I can’t imagine you mortified.
KateP: We still haven’t met, in real life, so you only get to imagine me.
KateP: Not that you care, obviously, but I waited for you that day.
KateP: Did I speak the unspeakable??
ThomasG: “You expect me to account for opinions which you choose to call mine, but which I have never acknowledged.”
KateP: Deflection using Darcy. Well played, although the wound to my pride of being stood up like a cliched old teen movie clip still smarts a bit.
KateP: I was caught up in the fantasy of human connection. I lost myself to the romantic fictions and the stories of the past.
KateP: For me, the far better educational outcome is to focus on my reality and stop trying to exceed the low expectations set for me.
KateP: Wanting more than a diploma and endless hours of manual labor is a waste of energy because it’s not my fate. So thank you, for disappointing me, it’s just what I needed.
ThomasG: This is the estimation in which you hold me! I thank you for explaining it so fully. My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed!
KateP:AAANND I set you up to throw that Darcy quote in my face. Great. Your faults aren’t heavy. My future feels extra bleak today.
ThomasG: If we lived 10 years ago we might not have met then either.
ThomasG: Did you know that Topeka High used to have two thousand students?
KateP: And now it sits empty, with a very public legal battle, hallways full of bats, and an aura of despair.
ThomasG: The bats might not be roosting in the hallways. I don’t think anyone knows for sure.
ThomasG: My dad went there. He told me that before it shut down, everyone had devices issued by the school, just like now, but they showed up at the school building every day and used their devices all together
KateP: My mom dropped out to help her family. She finished later, online. She doesn’t understand how what we are forced to do now is any different than what she did 20 years ago.
ThomasG: My grandad knows how bad this is, although he expresses it mainly by reminiscing about his own high school years.
ThomasG: It’s strange how it changed so fast. From the one room schoolhouse of his grandparents to the no-room schoolhouse of his grandchildren.
KateP: What do we really miss though? I’ve read books and seen vids from the early 2000’s. What do they have in those physical buildings that you want?
ThomasG: Crowded hallways. Passing periods. Parking lots.
KateP: You’re nostalgic for loitering?
KateP: What do you think is the biggest drawback with online virtual public school? That’s what I struggle with when I talk to my mom. She hated high school and thinks I have it better now.
ThomasG: My grandad talks about prom as a right of passage.
ThomasG: But the American Dream got all jacked up and he wants me to have milestones I can look forward to instead of a “bleak and meaningless future of underemployment doing mind numbing labor.” .
KateP: So you want to go to prom?
ThomasG: No! Even my dad only went to prom with his gay friend to make a political statement. My grandad wants me to…well he wants an alternate universe where I look forward to prom with my high school friends at our school, where we loiter around all day together without work assignments or overuse of technology.
ThomasG: Grandad phrases it more nicely when he’s ranting about it.
KateP: This is perfect! Let’s go to prom together okay?
KateP: I’m asking you because of course I’m a feminist and because I don’t want to assume you’ll ask me. Promposals went out of style long before the current economic depression.
ThomasG:What prom? Online virtual schools don’t have dances.
KateP: But that patio in front of Topeka High doesn’t look too scary. I wouldn’t go inside the old high school, of course. That building should clearly be condemned
ThomasG: You want to meet someone you met online while trespassing at a condemned building?
ThomasG: This seems unwise.
KateP: I want a lot of people I’ve only met online to meet on the courtyard for our senior prom. And get dressed up a bit. Maybe stay out all night.
KateP: Your grandad is right. We need something to look forward to.
ThomasG: You might be crazy.
KateP: Is that a yes? I’d feel better if I knew I had a date to the prom before I go to all the bother of create it out of thin air and all.
ThomasG: My hesitation is this: I don’t know the etiquette for this situation, but it seems like a gentleman wouldn’t let a lady plan and execute her own prom alone.
KateP: Excellent! If you’ll help, we can be the Kansas Virtual School student government prom committee, Topeka Chapter. I’ve been reading the school handbook and the legislature left the structure of extracurricular intact even though they stripped the funding.
ThomasG: Why would you read the school handbook?
KateP: I was researching the possibility of a book club. This prom idea is so much more fun!
ThomasG: Are you sure I can’t talk you into a book club?
KateP: That’s just a bit of extra emoticon nostalgia for you and your grandad.
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Login successful 5/20/2026 Discussion Board Population=2
ENGLISH LIT 499-SELF-GUIDED DISCUSSION BOARD
TOPIC: PERSUASION BY JANE AUSTEN, BRITISH LITERATURE
ThomasG: Much like our modern situation, Persuasion marks a break with Austen’s previous works, both in the more biting, even irritable satire directed at some of the novel’s characters and in the regretful, resigned outlook of its otherwise admirable heroine, Anne Elliot, who gives me, as the reader, much to ponder in regards to my own romantic endeavors.
KateP: I’ve missed your Wikipedia quotes.
ThomasG: The energy and appeal of the Royal Navy symbolizes for Anne the possibility of a more outgoing, engaged, and fulfilling life, so please don’t tell me your next big idea is for us to join the military.
KateP: My current community service hours are fulfilling enough. How are you holding up?
ThomasG: I hold in my mind the memory of your bright blue skirt, of spinning you around and catching you in my arms.
KateP: That skirt was very twirly and gauzy. Completely impractical for agricultural work. I love it.
ThomasG: I’m sorry we got arrested for trespassing before I had a chance to kiss you.
KateP: Me too.
KateP: In other news, I wrote your name in as the cosponsor of our new book club. Now that we aren’t graduating this summer as planned, we have another year of unpaid manual labor and literature discussions to look forward to together.
ThomasG: And after that?
KateP: I’m assuming you aren’t phishing for information about my feelings, and instead want to discuss our unique position within society to lead our generation to greatness. I think the answers are obvious though.
ThomasG: Second annual prom?
KateP: You betcha. But next time with less misdemeanor citations and contacting of parents and guardians. It turns out the online virtual school handbook has some provisions for events, which I found while I was filling out the forms for book club.
ThomasG: Information which would have been useful a month ago, back when we were naive and trespassing seemed like an innocent endeavor. What are we going to discuss after Austen? We are halfway through her six novels already.
KateP: The form required a community volunteer adult to sponsor the club or we can’t hold in person meetings. He might want some input into selections also.
KateP: Your grandad. He and I hit it off at the police station after prom.
ThomasG: This is me being speechless.
KateP: In Persuasion, Austen says: “My idea of good company…is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.’
‘You are mistaken,’ said he gently, ‘that is not good company, that is the best.”
KateP: Between talking to your grandad and reading the handbook, my mind is swimming in ideas right now. Good company really is the best.
KateP: Did you know the original online school plan was a desperate measure to avoid the courts shutting down the schools altogether. But that was before the stock market fraud and the collapse. We were still in grade school when the emergency legislation closed most of the educational attendance centers.
KateP: Your grandad is convinced that even that would have been okay, but then the community service opportunities were privatized and the Ag lobbyists convinced the legislature to double and then triple the requirements to increase food production.
ThomasG: You sound just like grandad. And while I like eating food, I don’t like growing it, and subverting child labor laws isn’t particularly on the up and up.
KateP: But I don’t think it has to be this way. The economy is picking up in other states, I’ve seen the news trickling out. Supplementing Kansas agricultural work with student labor can’t continue forever.
ThomasG: The State Board of Education reports to the legislature don’t even admit that the current system is anything less than successful. Why would they change?
KateP: Because we’ll make them, of course.
ThomasG: You and me?
KateP. And your grandad. And anyone else we can convince that this is important. The second annual prom committee may be a bit less about dressing up and dancing, and a bit more about some of the other things we are lacking from the high school experience.
ThomasG: I’m in. Although I’m prioritizing our prom night kiss next time, in case we get arrested.
The Facebook post I shared with my writer’s group online describes both my inspiration and motivation behind this story….well, these ideas plus the deadline that was looming over me….
I make too many unrelated jokes about plot ideas for the community novel project alternate history/speculative story and also about teen romance. And I finally got a short story idea…
So I’ll take my idea of a futuristic prom night and try to write the most breathtaking poignant love story that the systematic dismantling of public education has ever seen.
I welcome your feedback, especially if that feedback is sent before my June 1 revision deadline!