More Dogs on Main Street
May 29, 2009
This week the eighth graders got a dose of reality. They participated in "Reality Town," a program that exposes them to many of the choices they’ll face in actual life. The kids are assigned jobs based on their grade-point averages, and then randomly assigned other life circumstances like spouses and kids. So they get this little projection of a future life, with an income attached to it. Then they are turned loose in the gym with that "money" to spend and a list of booths they have to visit to get their imaginary life in order.
The booths represent things like housing, transportation, medical care, utilities, entertainment, communications basically all the stuff we have to buy to function in modern society. The booths are staffed by volunteers drafted from the community. I was at the insurance booth, peddling health and dental insurance. Next to me was the car insurance booth. It makes for an interesting interaction on both ends. The kids are forced to interact with adults, and the adults are put in close proximity with eighth graders, who may be the most frightening life forms on earth.
I’d forgotten what being an eighth grader was like, but there would be a group of three of four kids standing in front of my booth, and one would look like a college freshman and his buddy next to him looked to be about seven though before we were through discussing health insurance, he was a foot taller and in need of a shave. Yikes.
Anyway, within their assigned salary, the kids were all required to equip themselves with the trappings of modern life from a place to live to cable television to watch there. It forced some decision-making, ranging from whether they really needed the expensive house to whether a killer cell-phone plan was worth taking on a second job. The program was pretty comprehensive in terms of what expenses people really have to pay to live.
It became very clear that the kids didn’t really understand what insurance was. Most of them had a hard time separating the idea of buying dental insurance from actually going to the dentist. One drills your wallet, the other drills your teeth, and you hope they balance out.
In the way that only a kid looking at this for the first time could, one of them was confused why health insurance excluded dental. The teeth were connected to his body, after all, and they didn’t sell health insurance that excluded feet or hands. Why teeth? I didn’t have an answer, and it has bothered me all week. The best answer I could come up with was that the health-insurance industry is a bunch of lying weasels who would do anything to avoid selling a policy to anybody but the perfect specimen of health, or paying a claim. You wouldn’t buy a car-insurance policy that excluded damage to the right rear fender, but we all just assume that it makes sense that health insurance doesn’t cover teeth. This is America our health insurance isn’t supposed to make sense.
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The kids’ priorities were not terribly different from what I would have expected. Cars and cell phones were pretty important to them. A surprising number were willing to buy a trailer house and pay rent for a space to park it. Most Park City kids have never seen a trailer park, but the price seemed right. Never mind that their new Mustang would get stripped bare on the first night there.
The fundamental lesson was supposed to be that those C-minuses that predicted a career as a construction laborer instead of a nuclear engineer matter. I don’t know what the follow-up lessons are what time the teachers spend with them going over their respective earnings and budgets, and how lousy grades in eighth grade might affect the house they live in 20 years from now. That’s a pretty hard concept to communicate to kids who are hard pressed to see beyond the end of lunch.
And, of course, it’s not that linear. Nobody will be sitting in a squalid trailer, watching as his car is repossessed, and say to himself, "If only I had done that book report when I was in the eighth grade, everything would be different now." It probably wouldn’t be. But getting a real look at the range of choices that affect how they live has to be an interesting exercise.
For the most part, the kids were pretty clueless about what things cost, and why their families may have made the decision to drive older cars instead of the new Audi parked across the street. The whole idea of making choices and setting priorities is one of life’s big lessons. It was fun to help out.
Tom Clyde served as Park City attorney in the 1980s and is the author of "More Dogs On Main Street." He has been a columnist at The Park Record for more than 20 years.