This Tuesday, as voters are bubbling in their ballots, American children—whose ability to learn about racism and sexuality, receive gender-affirming care, use their preferred bathroom, combat climate change, and avoid mass shootings may all be impacted by the election—will be in school. (Maybe also filling in bubbles, though less consequential ones.)

In efforts to platform this massive bloc of silent stakeholders ahead of the midterm, the radio show This American Life last week released an episode, guest hosted by radio producer Chana Joffe-Walt, where teens detail the ways in which contentious pieces of legislation impact their day-to-day lives. 

“I’ve since seen so many school board meetings where kids sit in the audience as parents yell about school closures or Don’t Say Gay laws or admissions policies,” Joffe-Walt says. “This dynamic, adults arguing about the kids right in front of them—it’s like a play that’s quietly touring the country right now, being reenacted in different places, in different forms. A play in which you never hear from the main characters.”

When student voices make their way into political stories, it’s almost always because said students are fighting for some kind of change. So when I started listening to the episode, I assumed it would spotlight student advocates—but it doesn’t, which actually strengthens the piece.

The kids in Joffe-Walt’s story haven’t staged walkouts for reproductive rights, nor have they lobbied to lower the voting age to 16; they’re just regular kids, trying to live their lives while legislators work against them. 

In the most astonishing segment of the episode, students from a Virginia high school recount a recent lockdown—a real one, not a drill—where, for hours, it was somehow unclear whether or not an active shooter was in the building.

Students, huddled in dark classrooms, passed the time in the way students do: playing Wordle, gossiping, cracking jokes (“some girl was like, oh, no, I’m going to die a virgin,” one student remembers).

Another student spent the lockdown filming the closed door of the classroom with her phone—“I thought if it was an actual school shooting, I see all these [videos] of students filming shakily, so I thought maybe if it was happening, I should probably do that,” she says.

Parents collected outside the building, with some fretting and others taking work calls.

“I cannot think of a more perfect illustration of what it is like to pretend things are normal in America right now—a more 2022 image than a work-from-home finance guy taking a Zoom call from his car, outside what may or may not be a school shooting in his kid’s high school,” Joffe-Walt says. “The incredible peaks of disassociation, the alienation required to proceed with our daily routines while still allowing for the possibility of tragedy at any moment.”

Click here to listen to the full podcast.

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