The Nighttime Worries of Americans in 2019


Life is pretty good—right?

It’s the middle of the night, and your kids are asleep. Your spouse is sleeping beside you. You should be asleep, too, but you’re tossing and turning because you’re worried.

It started with something so silly; you read the other day that the Seattle school district is “planning to infuse all K–12 math classes with ethnic-studies questions that encourage students to explore how math has been ‘appropriated’ by Western culture and used in systems of power and oppression.” One more big-city school board making some sort of idiotic change in the name of political correctness, while dodging the much more important question of whether the kids are learning math in the first place.

You hated math as a kid, but you see now why you needed to learn it. These days, cashiers can’t calculate the right change without the register, people can’t figure out how many miles they can get on a full tank of gas, nobody knows how to calculate the tip, and nobody can calculate the cost of carpeting a room per square foot. In school you felt relieved that you weren’t the dumbest kid in class. Now it feels like you’re constantly encountering the dumbest kid in class everywhere you go.

You don’t live in Seattle, and you like your child’s elementary-school teacher. She hasn’t infused math class with oppression studies. But that doesn’t mean you don’t wonder if the school is preparing your children for the challenges they’ll face later on in life.

You feel like you’re constantly swimming against the tide. Someone told the PTA that the district should start “meatless Mondays” for the school lunches. Right, because elementary-school kids love salads so much. You consider it a small miracle when your youngest eats anything besides chicken nuggets or bologna sandwiches, and now they want to limit even those options — because the polar ice caps depend upon your child discovering a love for kale, or something.

You turned out okay, but you learned some things the hard way. You remember some teachers who were clearly just counting the years until retirement. Every year is a roulette wheel: gambling that your kids get one of the good teachers who are still emotionally invested in getting the best out of the class, rather than one who’s burned out by an emotionally exhausting job and cruises through the day, protected by tenure. You must have missed the day when we all voted to become a hyper-accountable society except when it comes to those teaching our kids.

Maybe you could afford private school for your kids, but it would require a lot of belt-tightening. And what the heck are you paying all of these local taxes for if the local public school is falling down on the job? Your cousin in another state keeps raving about her daughter’s charter school. For some reason, Elizabeth Warren talks about charter schools as if they’re the devil.

Will your kids get into a good college? Probably — they seem like smart kids — but you’re just not sure what it takes anymore. All of those celebrities and insanely rich people buying their way in through bribes to coaches: The whole system stunk. Now you understand why teenagers are so into those Hunger Games and The Maze Runner novels and all those other dystopian young-adult tales about being forced by a corrupt, decadent, manipulative regime into a cutthroat competition to survive. It’s no shock that kids feel that they’re being groomed to satisfy some arbitrary judges with opaque criteria for some decision that sets off the domino chain of life.

Apparently more colleges don’t want the SAT anymore. You hated that test too, but it was fair — same test, same questions to everyone. As you’ve gotten older, though, you’ve realized that just about everybody plays favorites, either consciously or subconsciously: teachers, admissions offices, professors, employers, HR departments, promotion panels, cops, judges, critics. At every networking and professional-development event, you’re told with a weirdly incongruous smile: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” How’s that working out for everyone? Hey, could we try evaluating people on what they know again? Maybe that would get better results. University admissions staff think of themselves as eagle-eyed foes of injustice, but they shrug at special treatment for legacies, athletes, and children of staff or donors. Nobody’s willing to put their thumb on the scale for your child.

Once they get into college — God knows how you’re going to pay for it, beyond black-market kidney donations — you hope your kids study a real subject, and don’t get too much nutty political indoctrination. They don’t seem like the type who’ll get older and end up in some sort of nonsense “extinction rebellion” protest, blocking people with real jobs from getting to work. Then again, those protesters’ parents probably thought the same thing. No wonder the protesters always want the government to set up some program to support them. Remember the Green New Deal calling for “economic security for all who are unable or unwilling to work”? You would love to get that deal.

You keep seeing studies that show that business managers insist they don’t overvalue particular degrees from particular schools — and then keep hiring from the same top 10 to 20 schools. Then you keep seeing surveys of employers who say that recent graduates seem unprepared for the workplace. You’re not sure they’re casting their nets wide enough.

You just want your kids to be happy and grow up prepared for the real world. You know that if you’re not ready, the real world will beat the stuffing out of you. Finding a good job is hard enough — you can’t believe the Great Recession was a decade ago, because it feels like it was just a few years ago. It seemed like everybody was getting laid off back then, scrambling to get by on two part-time jobs whose schedules never aligned conveniently.

Then there’s keeping that good job. These days, you can get laid off for a tweet. Your company’s human-resources department had a mandatory session on “social media policies.” There was a time when what you said, wrote, or thought off company time was your business. Now, apparently, you’re a 24–7 representative of your employer, no matter where you are or what you’re talking about, and if somebody gets sufficiently offended, they’ve got to cut ties quick lest they be associated with your suddenly unacceptable beliefs. If they’ve decided to treat you like you’re an all-day-every-day company spokesman, you ought to get paid like a professional pitchman.

Every other week you’re hearing about some stupid new ban, trying to save you from something that never bothered you at all and always seemed helpful, even necessary. Plastic bags, even though the reusable bags run a bigger risk of disease. They keep giving you a paper straw to go with your drink in a plastic cup. How much difference did that make? Cities are banning fast-food drive-throughs. Who was bothered by those?

All around your life, you feel like you’re being squeezed by this unseen force, trying to nudge you into choices that aren’t your own. You don’t need saving from the problems in your life. You need saving from all of the people who say they’re trying to save you who keep creating new problems in your life.

You’re not going to say who you’re going to vote for in next year’s election. Everyone who would be upset by it doesn’t understand what it’s like to be you in the first place.

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