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I began volunteering with an organization that teaches financial concepts to children. Recruited by a friend I’ve known for twenty years, I trusted her judgement.
“Hey! Want to help out?” she plied me over wine at Kincaid Grill. “We go into classrooms and teach kids about economics and financial literacy!”
It’s hard to argue with that cause.
I agreed to spend one morning teaching fifth grade. The lesson plan introduced the concepts of globalization and business entrepreneurship, and not in a scary way I might add. There were no discussions of the collapse of American manufacturing, or how robots were taking our jobs. Instead, the course encouraged students to pursue careers in science, technology, and math so as to maximize relevancy in the 21st century.
Heck yes, I’ll teach kids why capitalism is awesome.
Once at the designated school, it only took a minute to remember how small objects in elementary schools are, and why there are separate adult bathrooms; one does not wish to squat with one’s knees in one’s ears.
I greeted the fifth grade with enthusiasm. Children are the future.
“How many of you like money?”
Twenty-three hands went up. One girl’s hand faltered as she studied me, trying to figure out if this was a trick question.
“Yeah, me too!” I plunged my hand into the air. “I love money. Money is the best!”
“Yeah!” a chorus of voices rang out.
“I’ve always wanted a never-ending allowance!” a kid to my right shouted.
“Me too,” I agreed, “but in absence of that, we need to start businesses.”
A student in the front row raised his hand.
“What do you do?”
That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer.
“I bundle and pay for surgeries.”
I received a roomful of predictably quizzical looks.
“But I get to work from home! That’s pretty cool!”
The fifth grade agreed. That was pretty cool.
A probing young man in the second row raised his hand.
“So, you operate on people out of your house? Like, you do surgery on them? That sounds bloody.”
“Well, no, I just schedule the surgeries out of my house.”
He frowned at me.
“So, you’re like a middleman?”
Sensing I was losing my audience’s trust–
“What does your dad do?” I countered.
“My dad cuts hair,” he answered promptly.
Darn that was straightforward.
“Well, doesn’t that dovetail nicely into what we are going to discuss today?”
I held up my teacher’s manual.
“We have some vocabulary for you to learn. Who would like to read the definition of ‘competition?’”
Several hands shot into the air.
I called on a girl in the second row.
“I’ve done this program before,” she promptly informed us.
“Oh? Well that’s good!” I encouraged.
She nodded in agreement and read the definition. Competition is a rivalry between businesses that make a similar product or provide a similar service.
“So, if I open a hair salon, I’m in competition with your father for customers,” I directed my comments to my previous challenger.
He stared back, unimpressed.
“Have any of you considered inventing a product?” I tried to bring the lesson plan back on track. “What product would you invent?”
Program Veteran raised her hand
“I want to invent a saliva bank.”
“A saliva bank. That way, you can know what dog saliva tastes like if you are curious.”
“Huh. Who would be your customers?”
She looked at me pityingly; she thought I was surprisingly obtuse for a guest lecturer.
“People who want to know what other animal or people saliva tastes like.”
There are of course other, sometimes even free, ways to taste the saliva of others. But I neither wanted to broach that subject, nor stifle her creative energy.
“You… sure could do that. Anyone else? Any other products?”
A small boy in the back row raised his hand.
I pointed at him.
“What’s your name?”
“Alex,” he stammered, quickly setting his hand down and launching into his product. “I want to have a hover bar, where I can put my hands on it, and it will lift me up. Then I can hover.”
That seemed more appropriate to discuss with the fifth grade than a volunteer saliva bank.
“Perfect! What resources would you need to make that product?”
We all consulted the worksheet defining natural and capital resources.
“Well, I’d need some metal. And probably electricity.”
“Those sound like terrific resources. Now, everyone break into groups, and discuss products amongst yourselves. Specifically, come up with the resources you would need to build these products.”
The class gamely divided into groups.
“Can I be in Alex’s group?”
A little girl with blonde curly hair came up and peered into my eyes.
“Uh, sure. You can be in Alex’s group.”
She launched into a lengthy explanation.
“I have ideas for more resources for his hover bar. He needs carbon and graphite, and –”
“Yep, yep, sounds good!” I waved her over to Alex’s group, and consulted the next item in the lesson plan.
I had allotted fifteen minutes for the activity, when –
“Can we have snack?”
A tall kid in the back row named Peter pulled on my sleeve.
“Um, sure, we can have snack. Just give me a mome—”
I cast my eyes around for the teacher. She was a substitute, and was currently staring dreamily at her computer, happily indifferent to everything around her. Periodically she would pop her head up to tell one of the back rowers to pipe down.
I walked over to her.
“What time is snack?”
“Now,” she said vacantly, and a tad unhelpfully.
“Can we have snack?”
Another boy ambled over, looking anxious.
Succumbing to the inevitable, I called the class back to order to finish the lesson. The last thing I needed was for the children to unionize and protest the shocking delay of snack in their working conditions.
“We have time for one group to present their product and resources.”
Saliva Bank’s hand shot in the air. She had drawn a diagram of her processing plant.
I ignored her, and instead invited up a group of first row boys.
“We have invented the Find Me Phone,” the leader informed us, with all the enthusiasm of a small business owner pitching to a venture capital fund.
“Never lose your phone again!” he boomed. “We will insert a chip into your leg, which will be connected to the phone. Then, the phone will levitate and find you wherever you are!”
I paused, considering all of the privacy concerns these youngsters were raising. Everyone universally, however, appeared comfortable handing over their moment-by-moment location data to third party organizations.
Not wishing to crush their dreams of a future police state utopia–
“Terrific. What resources do you think you will need?”
“Metal and electricity,” they answered definitively.
That seemed correct to me. I thanked them for their participation and sent them back to their seats.
“Can I answer any other questions before we break for snack?”
Peter raised his hand.
“What started the Vietnam War? Was it over oil?”
I took a beat to answer this unanticipated question –
“No. It was the Nazis. They invaded,” the boy next to him answered matter-of-factly on my behalf.
“Well, the Vietnam War was actually started over … politics,” I corrected vaguely.
“So, not Nazis?”
The boy looked astonished.
“No, in this case it was the communists,” I finished abruptly.
It was a new feeling to be treated as an expert on foreign affairs and matters of state. Over a juice box and goldfish crackers, I pulled out my own phone to get up-to-speed on the signature global events of the last seventy-five years. I mustn’t look like an idiot in front of my constituents.
Sarah Brown is a childless professor of economics. She can be reached at email@example.com, and on Twitter @BrownsClose1. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac. All names have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty.