This American Life

This American Life is a weekly public radio show, heard by 2.2 million people on more than 500 stations. Another 2.5 million people download the weekly podcast. It is hosted by Ira Glass, produced in collaboration with Chicago Public Media, delivered to stations by PRX The Public Radio Exchange, and has won all of the major broadcasting awards.

783: Kids These Days

October 30, 2022

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We hear from kids who are dealing with some of the country’s most contentious debates. Debates that are supposedly about them.

Transcript

A quick warning, there are curse words that are un-beaped in today's episode of the show.

If you prefer a beeped version, you can find that at our website, thisamericanlife.org.

It's This American Life.

I'm Hannah Jaffee Waltz, sitting in for Ira Glass.

Last fall, I saw this video from a high school in Michigan, and maybe it wouldn't have stayed with me in the way that it has if it weren't for all the many things that have happened since then that keep reminding me of this video.

This turned into a sort of reference point in my head for a dynamic I keep seeing repeated.

The video is from September 2021, last fall, in Michigan, about 20 miles outside Ann Arbor.

It's early morning, right before the school day.

A group of parents and their high schoolers are kind of loosely crowded around the door to a school, a mostly white crowd.

There's a police officer with top gun sunglasses.

You're going to go in the building?

Yeah, they have a mask on.

Now, what would be the repercussions if they don't have a mask?

The officer is calmly, one might say patronizingly, repeating, if you're going to go into the building, you have to have a mask on.

Nobody in this video is wearing a mask.

About 20 teenagers are standing between the officer and the door to their school, looking like all teenagers do when they're waiting for anything, a little board, a little blank, lots of crossed arms, as this goes on.

I'm not going to force anybody.

I'm not putting masks on anybody.

That's not my job.

So they can go in without the mask?

This is a county health department order and a policy of the school.

Right.

That if anybody that's going to go in, they got to have a mask on.

There is no policy.

I'm not arguing.

Okay, so they can go in, guys.

They can go in.

Go on in, guys.

The officer has just said, no, you can't go in, and the parents are waving the kids toward the door yelling, you can go in.

Some of the teenagers look reasonably a little confused, like, didn't the cop just say the exact opposite?

But they all turn and slowly move toward the door where the principal and superintendent are standing with masks on, and the kids are just trapped there in a big clump.

You guys, they can't touch you.

Just go ahead and go in.

I remember watching this and thinking, what is it like to be those high schoolers stuck in between your principal and your parent, between two authorities, who are each so certain they have the moral high ground when it comes to your life?

They can't touch us.

Then a passage opens.

The administrator steps to the side and the kids rush in.

They cannot touch you, you guys.

There you go.

Be orderly, be kind, be kind and respectful.

Be kind and respectful.

Be kind and show respect.

I love you guys.

The kids are inside.

Soon after I saw the masks video, I saw another from Texas.

A mom at a school board meeting opposing critical race theory and masks was disrupting the meeting.

An officer goes over to ask her to leave, and then he starts going back and forth with her over her seated teenage son.

He was just looking at his lap the whole time.

Again, what's it like to be in the middle like that?

I've 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.

When school districts started banning books from their libraries, I kept wondering, do students care about that?

Does that make the books much more appealing?

Or is there a kid out there who's like, I read that book.

Why that one?

It's not even that interesting.

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, people like the kids at the school in the masks video.

I was just ready for a fresh start.

I was ready to be back in school.

I thought that was going to be really good.

This is a student I'm going to call John.

John, like every kid I talked to, involved in this particular day at this particular school, asked that I change his name.

And I have.

The video became very divisive.

John says, what you miss, what you don't get from just hearing from the adults in that video is that the biggest thing happening for him right at that moment and many students was not masks.

It was that this was the beginning of school.

Finally, a normal year after such a long pandemic.

I hadn't been around most of these people since my freshman year of high school.

So there were a lot of things that changed.

Like I know this sounds weird, but a lot of people's voices got deeper, just things like that.

And people, people, people can drive now.

People have jobs.

Like people didn't have them my freshman year of high school.

And people have angry parents now coming with them to school.

And there's an officer outside the front door.

John was wearing a mask that day, so he was allowed in the school building.

He walked in about 10 minutes before the confrontation outside, headed to AP English, sat down, John's class started, and then those kids from outside were allowed into the building.

A couple of the ones that were in my class knocked on the door.

My teacher wouldn't open the door and they were recording her being very hostile and confrontational, saying stuff like, you're destroying my educational rights and blah, blah, blah, blah.

And then my teacher basically told them, guys, I'm just, I'm just following the rules and then close the door on them.

Whoa.

Yeah.

What did you make of that?

I was pretty distraught.

And then she turned around and looked at us and was like, guys, I, I can't do this.

This is, this is ridiculous.

I was pretty distraught because I had never seen like people treat teachers like that before.

And it changed the way John saw his teacher.

She had such little authority in that moment.

And so many of the other moments that followed in the coming months, she'd asked kids to wear their mask properly.

They wouldn't.

She struggled visibly saying things like, I need to find a job somewhere else.

John though kept trying to restore the original order of things, the way he remembered school to be, the teacher in charge.

I just made a point to talk with her, not trying to be like a teacher's pet, but like trying to make it a point to like engage in her class and stuff like that.

I, I, I tried to treat her like she still had the same authority that she did before everything took place.

Even though she actually didn't.

Even though she actually didn't.

Yeah.

I was in the video.

I was not.

These are two students.

They're going to call Daniel and Maddie, who only wanted to speak with me together, who were high school seniors who didn't want to use their real names and who tagged team every time they speak.

Maddie was wearing a mask.

She said she wore one because her mom wanted her to.

So she was led into the school building.

Daniel was not wearing a mask.

He and his parents didn't agree with the mask mandate.

So he was crowded in with everyone at the front door.

The superintendent and the principal were getting annoyed.

Yeah.

Like whole day was just kind of like weird.

No, it was definitely times.

Well, it was just kind of distracting because like everyone did want to just like learn.

I asked Daniel, what happened once they were led into the building?

He says they put all the kids without masks in the library and they were there for hours, just as a sort of holding area, I guess, until they figured out what to do with them.

There was like probably 60 or 70 kids just crammed in the library.

There was teachers telling us that we were bad kids and naughty, no maskers is what they called them.

Yeah.

Naughty, no maskers.

Yeah.

The teachers did.

Yeah.

I would have.

They talked bad about us.

It was childish.

So all of a sudden everybody in the building, including the adults are on one team or the other.

That's kind of how it felt.

It was very like segregated.

It was very divided.

It had not ever been like that before and it affected the rest of the school year.

Everyone I spoke with agreed on this.

The school year was ruined by what happened that day.

Everything after that was tense.

People lost trust in each other.

Everyone felt less safe, less comfortable.

This thing that had not been front and center for most of them became the main event.

The students disagreed on which adults were to blame.

Some of them blame the parents.

Some blame the teachers.

But they all agreed that the adults were to blame.

So many of the big, contentious political issues right now center around kids.

Should teachers be allowed to teach about racism, history, sexuality?

Will stricter gun laws keep our kids safe in school?

Would more aggressive climate policies keep them safer in the future?

Which ones?

All these policy debates that we've been having for months that are so central to American politics right now affect kids more than anyone else.

So today's show from WBEZ Chicago, we talk to kids living their kid lives in the middle of these divides.

Stay with us.

Act one, this is not a drill.

Even though kids are somewhat obviously at the center of this next one, I was initially drawn in by the parents.

I suppose because this is a particular parental experience that I spend a fair amount of time trying to imagine and trying not to imagine.

Dan Coyce was in the middle of his work day and he got a text from his 14-year-old daughter.

Harper wrote, there's like a lockdown right now, but people don't know if it's a drill.

Everyone's so confused.

Dan was half a mile from the school.

He ran to his bike and immediately pedaled in the direction of his kid's high school.

So a couple of corners away, a friend of ours who also has a kid at the high school was coming out of her front door and she was like, what's going on?

And I said, I got a text too.

No time to talk.

I'm going the same place as you.

And you could sort of see in all the streets that lead up to the school, individual parents making their way toward the school and cars pulling up and taking all the street parking places.

Oh my God.

So we're all sort of converging and there was- So it's like one by one every parent is like running out of their house toward the school.

Right.

Because every parent has gotten a text from their kid saying something weird is going on and we're in lockdown.

This was last February in suburban Virginia.

But this kind of thing happens all over just a few weeks ago in San Antonio, Texas.

I didn't start losing, excuse my language, I didn't start losing my shit until I got to the school and I actually saw officers running all over the place.

For Audrey Cardenas, she didn't get a text from her kid.

It was a post on Nextdoor, a neighborhood site, shooting at Jefferson High School.

There's other parents crying.

So I'm like, do y'all know anything?

And they're like, they're not telling us nothing, they're not telling us anything.

I get a text message from my son's best friend.

My son's friend's call me mom.

And he was like, mom, I'm stuck in a closet.

There's an active shooter.

I don't know where Carlitos is at.

I honestly thought of going in through the exit room.

I went to Jefferson High School so I know how to get in and out.

Because that door, I don't know if they fixed it.

I graduated 20 years ago.

But I'm pretty sure that door is still not fixed.

I'm pretty sure I could get in through there.

Have you imagined what you would do in this situation before it happened?

I would always talk to my kids about it.

It's not funny, but I always took a picture of my kids in the morning of what they were wearing, just in case something like this were happening.

What?

Really?

Wow.

Yes, and it annoys a shit out of all three of them.

But I'm just like, I need to know.

So I identify, OK, well, this is what he was wearing.

OK, this person's wearing that.

This is your son.

This is his body.

He was shot multiple times, in my mind.

Geez, that's something you're thinking about every morning?

I mean, an 18-year-old kid went into an elementary school and shot 19 students.

And all 19 died.

Good morning.

After Uvaldi, and after every school shooting that happened before Uvaldi, and the 40 school shootings that have happened so far just this year, a political debate emerged and reemerges.

We have too many guns.

We have too few permits, too much mental illness.

The teacher should have guns.

The issue is really assault weapons.

No, it's background checks.

It's a second amendment.

And meanwhile, kids keep going to school, and guns keep coming to school, and parents keep standing around outside grimly trying to imagine what is going on in those buildings during lockdowns.

That's what Dan did, standing outside his kid's school.

I was definitely trying to imagine myself into that space.

I didn't ask either of them if they were scared, because that seemed like a dumb question.

But I wanted to know what they were thinking about and how they were spending their time.

I wanted to know that, too.

What's it like for the kids who are actually at the center of this thing we seem to have decided is a permanent part of our lives now?

I was split between denial and pants-shitting fear, and I was not in the realm of pants-shitting yet.

Dan's oldest kid, Lyra, missed the loudspeaker announcement about a school lockdown.

So she was very breezy about what she assumed was a drill, until her sister heart protects at her.

No, this is not a drill.

Are you okay?

The teacher shut off the lights in Lyra's English classroom, locked the door.

Everyone crouched on the far wall, under some shelves.

And you know, that's like sort of like when the little pangs of fear start to hit, because I have both of these stories going, one of which could be the case, but I hope isn't, and one of which I need to believe is the case, because otherwise my brain would explode.

You know?

Lyra's little sister Harper was one floor down in health class, ninth grade.

Harper's classmates were clustering along the far wall, but Harper sat in her desk, twisted her body around toward the classroom door, and started filming the door.

The camera just watches the closed classroom door.

Sometimes her hand shifts or shakes down to her shoes, black converse, pass the health and wellness textbooks, and then back to the door, just waiting.

I'm sorry, just a kiss.

Wow, it's almost like you're like staging it for there to be a shooter to come in right there.

I thought like, if it was an actual school shooting, like I see all these things of students filming like, you know, shakily, so I thought maybe if it was happening, I should probably do that.

A rumor started going around about a kid with a gun somewhere in the school.

Harper and Lyra kept waiting for a long time.

No shooter, no announcement, no information.

So after like a great enough period of time had passed, the tension sort of leaked out of the room, and I just like went to my desk, you know, it's hard to play Tetris on your phone, so mainly I just wanted to play Tetris on my computer.

I didn't think I could get work done.

I felt too nervous.

I mean, people were really just talking, like some people weren't even really talking about the lockdown, they were just talking about regular high school drama that Addison broke up with Owen or something, you know, like, wait, who was it?

It was, I don't know, some girl was like, oh no, I'm going to die a virgin.

And then people heard and they started laughing and then her friend was like, no, we're not going to die, it's okay.

And I remember, I don't know if this is important, but there was a couple and it was a junior boy and a sophomore girl, and the whole time they were just like in the corner, like being all cuddly and stuff.

And they were like cuddling up to each other, the girl was like, oh, I'm so scared, like what do I do?

And then the guy was like, it's okay, it's okay.

What did you think of that?

I thought it was funny.

You guys are weird.

Lyra texted her wordle result, she got the wordle in three.

Dan, their dad was still outside with all the other parents waiting.

And then Harper texted that she got the wordle in four and I told them I also got the wordle in three.

I shared with the parents outside the school that my kids got the wordle in three or four and they said good work and I shared that with my kids.

Then Lyra sent us some tweets from kids who were inside the school, someone cancel school or else I'm a piss all over the cafeteria floors.

Then I sent them some photos of what the outside of the school looked like so they could get a sense of how many police cars were there and Lyra wrote and my bike was in the photo and she made fun of me for biking to the school.

Dan says the weirdest part of this portion of the day was running the two stories in his head, same as Lyra.

One story, this is nothing, we're just waiting, the kids will be out soon.

And the other story, we're going to look back on this moment when we thought it was nothing, the one right before all the tragedy.

But the longer this went on, the first story, this is nothing, had a stronger pull.

So like the parents are now, some of them have gone home, some of them are still there and texting their kids.

There's one guy who's illegally parked in front of the driveway with his windows open, he's doing the longest, loudest work call on his phone, on speakerphone, so we're just all listening to his work call about brokerage fees or something.

He's doing the work call to be close to the school.

He wanted to be close to the school, so he just sat there waiting for something to happen, but also doing this work call on speakerphone.

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 kids high school.

The incredible peaks of disassociation, the alienation required to proceed with our daily routines while still allowing for the possibility of story number two, of tragedy at any moment.

And then something happened.

For the loudspeaker, it was a man who no one knew wasn't our principal, it wasn't his voice, it was just a random guy.

And it said today is Thursday, February 10th, 2022.

That's it.

It was like a deep man voice being serious.

And then everyone was like, what?

Like why?

Why would they announce that?

And then my teacher said, well, that can't be good.

Upstairs, Lyra heard the announcement too.

And for her, this is when she snapped into story number two.

She could feel the other kids in the room do the same thing, tensing up, getting ready for something, to do something.

Because I feel like every kid at some point, every high schooler thinks about, well, what would I do if I was in a mass shooting?

And I feel like it's like everyone's instinct to be like, oh, I'd be brave.

I would be kind.

I would know what to say to keep people calm.

I would know how to escape.

I would fight off the shooter.

Like I just sort of resign myself like, if a shooter comes, I probably run away or die.

Had you had that thought before?

Oh yeah.

I think all high schoolers think about it, especially Mer.

Do you think that's true?

All high schoolers have had that thought, who am I going to be in a school shooting if there's a school shooting?

Yes, I would definitely say every single American high schooler has thought about that.

Really?

I do not have contact with every single American high schooler, nor does Lyra.

But once she said this, I was curious.

I started asking around.

And every kid I talked to, kids in Texas, New Mexico, Missouri, Minnesota, Michigan.

Yeah, I put some thought into it.

Nick is in East Lansing.

He's a senior this year, which means he's had more than a decade to watch videos from school shootings, including videos from last year in Oxford, Michigan, which is just a little over an hour away from him.

And where he heard a student ran at the shooter, Nick says he's imagined being that guy in his school shooting, or he'd help other kids escape.

And I know a lot of my friends also know we know the different ways to get in and out of the building.

This past year, I had ceramics, which was on the outside, so that had a door.

Nick was the first of many kids I talked to, with an alarming command of the various means of egress in their school buildings.

It was that way with Michael, too, outside Detroit.

We have this weird little corridor, and next to the band room is an exit door, but you cannot enter through it.

Michael told me above the exit door is a drop-down ceiling with a missing tile.

You could get up there.

He heard a couple years ago the seniors stuck a Christmas tree up there, so he's pretty sure there's space.

You could stack the cubbies, get up to the ceiling, push one of my tiles off, and then get on top of the drop-down ceiling and escape that way if you needed to.

And you had thought about this.

I thought about it as a possibility.

I kind of left it in the back of my mind.

I'm like, all right, if we have to, this is what we do.

And then last winter, a student threatened to kill his classmates during sixth period.

Nobody knew if he really meant it.

So Michael's school went into lockdown, and he ended up in the drum line room, exactly where he'd planned to be.

Their band teacher told them to close the door and stay in there.

So Michael and about 10 other kids sat on the floor.

It was completely dark, soundproof.

Everyone was whispering.

Michael had thought about this moment so much.

And now here it was.

I told everybody the plan was in the first five minutes.

It was like, if we need to, there's a drop-down ceiling.

There's a tile open in the escape.

I call it the escape room now, because that's what I think of it as.

But the storage room, one of the tiles is broken.

You can jump through there.

What was the reaction?

What did people say?

The first thing that somebody said was, that's a dumb idea.

That is not how Michael imagined this moment going.

Michael, turns out, was not the only one with the plan.

He was in a room full of kids who had all prepared for this moment.

A room full of band kids who knew each other very well.

Michael says, everyone was exactly themselves.

Alex made jokes.

Connor reminded everyone to be calm and reasonable.

Lucy agreed with Connor and said, we should hear every side.

And the naysayer, who I will not name, who thought everyone's idea was dumb, but offered none of his own ideas, nobody was surprised.

They kept going.

It was constant.

We should make a wall of cubbies.

No, no, no.

We should hide inside the drums.

This went on for...

Around an hour and 15 minutes.

Wow, an hour and 15 minutes?

How much is there to say?

Depending on what point of view you had, we let through everybody's.

Each person got a chance to talk?

Yeah.

It was...

You have five minutes to talk and then you'll have two minutes to respond, jump to the next person.

Somebody was actually running time?

Yeah.

Who was running the clock?

Connor.

Of course.

When things got a little tense in this impromptu Lord of the Flies School Shootings Planning Committee, Alex started playing Pumped Up Kicks at the lowest volume possible.

I'm like, dude, stop it.

It gets really, really dark.

All the other kids with the Pumped Up Kicks better run, better run, faster than my gun.

All the other kids with the Pumped Up Kicks, he's better run, better run, I'll run my gun.

Dude decided to play Pumped Up Kicks.

He is the clown of the classroom.

He's known for being the class clown.

The fact that he did that just kind of shook me.

Did you find it funny?

I found it hilarious.

I'm like, dude, this is kind of serious right now.

Michael told me Alex had played Pumped Up Kicks at other lockdowns too.

It's kind of his lockdown thing.

But usually he waits till the end.

He says that's how you know it's over.

You hear that song playing as the police escort you out the building.

All the other kids with the Pumped Up Kicks, he's better run, better run, faster than my bullet.

Most kids will not experience actual school shootings.

But every year, millions of kids will experience something like this.

School lockdowns that are not a drill, that are a sudden, urgent response to a real or perceived threat.

Ones that can go on for hours, where teachers lock the doors, police are swarming, and helicopters bring in blood, just in case.

Kids react.

Some kids cry.

Some kids make out.

A fourth grader named Jude told me he filled his backpack with books and held it to his chest.

So many of the things I heard about kids doing were somehow generic and deeply individual.

A 12-year-old in Birmingham wrote a will that said, quote, Mom, I want to give my friend J-Von everything I own.

And that includes the Xbox and games and controllers.

I heard about a kid in upstate New York who called his parents from the bathroom during the lockdown and came out to them.

He didn't want them to learn he was gay later in the news if he died.

But the unifying foundation across all these experiences was the feeling of flip-flopping between two different stories.

Maybe it's nothing, but maybe it's not.

And how quickly the certainty that you are in the probably nothing story can crumble with one noise, with a text.

For Harper and Lyra in Virginia, it was that announcement an hour into their lockdown.

The deep man voice on the loudspeaker saying, today is February 10, 2022.

And I remember we all just went crazy over that.

What does that mean?

What the hell was that?

Who the hell was that?

Did anyone recognize that voice?

No, I didn't recognize that voice.

So I thought that it was like, is that, are they announcing that?

Because that's the day we're going to die.

Because I thought when they said the date, it was going to be like today is Thursday, February 10, and one student has died.

I thought they were going to finish it like that, like make a whole big thing, but they just said the date.

So I was like, what?

You thought they were going to announce deaths on the loudspeaker?

Yeah, I thought they were going to announce something has actually happened because at that point nothing had happened.

So maybe like, oh, they would announce something.

We had a school shooter.

We had a bomb.

We fixed it.

Now you can go.

We, la, la, la.

You're like, what's the rest of that sentence?

Yeah, what's the rest?

Like, what happened today?

Which story are we in?

And how does this story end?

Lira and Lyra stayed in lockdown for around three hours.

The normal end of school, 3 p.m. came and went.

Lyra's rehearsal for Annie never started.

Eventually, police came into the classroom with guns, helmets, and tactical gear, told everyone to put their hands up, and they walked in the line out of the building.

Later, parents suspected that the loudspeaker announcement was actually the police.

A caller had said he was in the school bathroom with two hostages and a gun.

The police thought the shooter was out of state, and parents heard that that announcement was a test to see if he was in the building.

Would police hear the PA system announcement if they got the shooter on the phone?

They didn't.

There were no hostages.

There was no shooter.

Not for Lyra and Harper School.

Not for the lockdown in San Antonio, where Audrey, the mom, had her son's picture ready to show to the police.

There was just the much more commonplace experience of a school lockdown that had a supposedly happy ending.

There are the established, respected rituals of an American high school experience.

Prom, graduation, homecoming.

All those times where people come together and share some sort of collective experience.

A school lockdown is like that.

Another kind of school ritual.

Like prom, it comes with its own traditions and expectations.

You've imagined what it'll be like ahead of time, who you might be.

And later, you'll look back and say, remember when that thing happened?

You'll look back and say, of course that person did that.

A high schooler named Jada in New Jersey told me that years ago, back in first grade, they all hid in the closet for a lockdown, and one kid fell asleep.

People laughed about that for years.

Another time, her freshman year, she wound up hiding in the closet again.

That was her longest lockdown.

And a student kept asking to go to the bathroom.

The teacher kept saying no.

I remember him peeing in a water bottle.

Actually?

The teacher was, yes, he was peeing in a water bottle.

Wow, in front of all of you?

She made him go behind a bookshelf, and we had to like move to the front of the closet so we wouldn't see him.

So embarrassing for that kid.

I think it was embarrassing for all of us because we were just like, oh, this is kind of awkward.

Like, he's just there peeing, and we could kind of hear him.

It was just not a good moment.

It was a not good moment that later, after the lockdown, not a single person mentioned again.

He never became the kid who peed in the lockdown.

Jada says with that one, everyone just had a sort of what happens in the lockdown stays in the lockdown attitude about the whole thing.

She just thinks they all knew it could have been them.

Coming up, a middle schooler and a new law grow up side by side, what happens when they finally meet.

That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

It's This American Life, I'm Hannah Jaffy-Walt, sitting in for Ira Glass.

Today's show, kids are at the center of so many political debates these days, like the debate that follows every school shooting about guns and kind of hovers above the lives of actual kids, circling, but never touching down, never really making much of an impact.

In our next story, another adult debate that is superheated right now lands directly in the life of one kid our producer, Elise Spiegel, has been spending time with, a kid named Finn in Alabama.

Alabama recently passed two laws that focus on the lives of trans kids.

It's one of many states to do so.

There's been a massive increase in these kinds of bills across the country.

Republican state legislators have proposed 69 new bills to restrict gender-affirming treatment, 14 new bathroom bills, 50 school restrictions, so-called don't say gay bills, and 130 sports bands.

Meanwhile, Finn has been growing up.

And what's so special about this next story is that you can see how these bills develop alongside his life as he goes from eighth grade to high school.

And what happens when they enter the picture?

Act two, Finn raises his hand.

Here's Elise.

A year before the laws found their way into Finn's life, he was in eighth grade.

And like most eighth graders, he wasn't carefully tracking bills in the Alabama state legislature.

His attention was on other things.

There were funny YouTube videos to watch, and unfortunate amounts of math homework to do, and the problem of which color to dye his hair, green or purple or blue.

Finn's one of those kids who likes to learn without liking school, so he's taught himself all kinds of things, to draw and paint, to play guitar.

He even fished his father's abandoned electric piano out of the corner of the music room and somehow taught himself to play.

Hey, wait, wait.

Okay.

Finn lives in Grove Hill, Alabama, a small town roughly two hours southwest of Montgomery.

In his small house, there are many heartbeats.

There's his mother Jody and his father Josh, his two sisters, Allison and Leila, and a Noah's Ark of Animals.

So we have Simon, Kevin, their brothers, and Reggie.

That's three cats.

We have Lobo, which is our dog, the bunny.

Allison has two lizards, speed and...

There's a duck in the backyard that gives off intense anger vibes, and a whole bunch of chickens Finn decided to raise, because Finn loves animals.

This is just a chicken coop.

That's the duck coop.

Oh my gosh, and then you have a one-eyed cat.

Yep, that's Reggie.

Hi, Reggie.

When Finn was little, he says he liked Grove Hill a lot.

It felt green and free.

But as he got older, things got more complicated.

Grove Hill is a conservative Christian community, a church three times a week kind of place as his mom likes to say.

So Finn felt extremely anxious when he first decided to come out as trans in eighth grade.

This was in the spring of 2021, after he and his classmates returned from COVID to in-person learning.

I don't want to have to tell it, and I know people can't read minds, but I don't want to explain it.

I just wanted them to be like, yeah, cool.

That's who you are, that's who your name.

Go with it.

Because it was still very awkward back then.

Awkward for a million reasons, because the people in eighth grade had known him as a girl for as long as they had known him, because it's always hard to tell people that you see every day something that you're not sure they want to hear.

And then of course, Finn was 14, and pretty much every conversation you have when you're 14 is awkward.

But Finn, this naturally shy kid whose main social goal is to stay under the radar, forced himself.

On the very first day of in-person learning, he says he lingered by his teacher's desk after class.

I hung back and I was just like, hey, I think I said my name's Finn now, and I use he, him front out.

And she was just like, oh, it didn't seem like she was like disgusted or didn't seem like she wanted to do that.

She just seemed more shocked.

I don't think she's ever like encountered anyone.

At this point, again, this is the spring of Finn's eighth grade year.

Finn's kids were not yet constantly in the headlines, and Finn says most of his teachers were open and sweet with him.

Very accepting and understanding.

And so were your teachers good about using the right pronouns and everything?

For the most part, I mean, it takes anyone a couple minutes.

Pronouns are not a small thing for Finn.

When people refer to him with the wrong pronoun, he says it's so distressing he often feels physically ill.

It's a response that's not uncommon.

Sometimes it's like pain in my gut.

Sometimes I actually feel like I'm going to puke.

Sometimes I just have to walk away and actually make sure I don't.

But queesiness wasn't much of a problem in middle school.

Finn remembers telling his friends for the first time that he wanted to go by he.

I think they like threatened if anyone messed up, they'd punch them.

I don't specifically remember though, but I think that was one of their reactions.

It made me laugh.

And that's the way it went for the rest of the year.

The teachers were open, the kids were on board, and it made Finn graduated from middle school feeling good, comfortable.

Finn's parents, Josh and Jody, were incredibly relieved.

They've lived in Grove Hill for most of their lives and so have a nuanced view of the community, all the contradictions that Grove Hill, Alabama contains.

Jody told me that though many of their friends seemed completely indifferent to whether Finn was trans or not and loved him no matter what, maybe even more people in the community find the experience of her child difficult to understand and even his existence unsettling.

Which brings me to high school.

This is Finn's mom, Jody.

Two days before school actually started, he said, what am I supposed to do if I have to go to the bathroom at school?

And I guess it was naive because it still didn't click.

I was like, well, what do you mean?

Like, you have to go to the bathroom, go to the bathroom, yeah.

Which is so stupid now.

And he said no.

Which one am I supposed to use?

I don't want to go to the girls' room.

There were no laws dictating where Finn could go to the bathroom.

Not yet anyway.

So when Jody talked with the school principal about what Finn should do, the principal quickly came up with a solution.

Finn could use the single-stall bathroom in the teacher's lounge.

This suited him fine.

And Finn says, at the beginning of school, he was feeling relatively optimistic.

I wasn't as worried with my names or pronouns more than I was finding my locker and finding the classes.

But almost immediately, Finn encountered pushback.

It started in geometry class.

Teacher was calling role, and I tried going up to them while they're doing it so they won't call out my dead name.

But she told me to sit down, and she called out my name.

And when she walked up to me, I corrected her.

I tell her that that's not my name, and I use a different name and pronouns.

And she was like, no, I'm not going to do that.

I'm going to go off of what's on the paper.

And what did you say?

Nothing.

And it wasn't just the geometry teacher.

There was pushback from Finn's English teacher, his science teacher, even his history and hobbyist teacher.

She pulled me aside, and she told me that she respects kids, and she loves kids, and all that is why she became a teacher and whatever.

She'll do the name, but she won't do the pronouns because that's not what I believe in.

I'm not going to do that.

I'll just not call on you.

It's impossible to know the exact why behind this resistance.

I reached out to Finn's teachers, the school principal, the superintendent's office.

All either declined to talk to me or didn't respond.

But it's clear that the national conversation was changing and growing.

There were more and more bills directed at trans kids, regulating how they played sports, where they went to the bathroom, what kind of medical care they could get access to, sometimes forbidding any discussion of trans issues in school at all.

Did that influence this response?

Was it simply teacher luck of the draw?

All Finn knew was that very, very unfortunately, the feelings of the teachers seemed to be spreading.

Like talking to me, saying the wrong pronouns, it affected how other people saw me, but slowly in a way.

What do you mean slowly in a way?

It was more gradually obvious that people thought I was a girl.

It was around December of his freshman year that Finn began to think more seriously about medical transition, finding a doctor who could provide hormone blockers and eventually testosterone.

Finn thought it might help people to see him the right way.

I'm very insecure about how high my voice can go.

So if I was able to access that stuff, it'd probably help a lot.

When Finn talked to Jodi about getting treatment, hormone blockers and testosterone, she told him she was open to the idea but needed to make sure it was safe first.

She said she'd research it.

So Finn plowed forward, played him band, suffered through geometry, and also became increasingly distressed, worried that his teachers would continue to misgender him, that the kids at school would continue to question whether he was truly a boy, that it would all just keep on getting worse.

And then one day in geometry, Finn hit a breaking point.

She either dead named me or misgendered me, one or the other, in front of the class.

And then she passed out a test paper.

And all my papers I usually write Finn, he, him, just like a little reminder note.

And I did that.

After writing that, I wrote, it was either please stop dead naming me or misgendering me or I will kill myself.

I remember writing it and then erasing it and then writing it back.

I was scared what was going to happen saying that, like if they would tell my mom or, I was scared my mom would believe it.

So I erased it.

But then I was like, I don't care.

This teacher needs to stop.

So I wrote it back, I did my test and I turned it in.

Finn says he wasn't really going to commit suicide if the teacher didn't use the right pronouns.

He just couldn't think of another way to communicate his distress.

The problem of suicide is incredibly serious among trans kids.

A recent study showed that in 2020, roughly one in two trans youth seriously consider suicide, though in parents and schools are accepting the rate of actual suicide attempts falls dramatically.

Finn's mom, Jodi, did talk to the teacher about this note and she says that she walked away from the conversation feeling at least a little bit better.

She told me she could see the teacher cared for Finn, but felt like using his right name and pronouns was against her religion.

She wasn't at all abrasive with me.

She didn't tense when I brought anything up.

She actually, she cried when I started explaining some things like, okay, well, this is what you did, but this is how it's made him feel.

And she was just like, oh my goodness, I'm so sorry.

I never, you know, that wasn't my intention.

So that was Finn before the bills passed, fragile, struggling to settle into high school and get through his day.

And then the lawmakers in Montgomery stepped into Finn's life.

Well, listen, we want to make sure we protect these kids.

There's a lot of reasons, a lot of things we do in the state to make sure that they can't have alcohol, can't have tobacco, can't have vaping.

This is Alabama State Representative Wes Allen, one of the Republicans who sponsored the bills, talking to reporters in the press room of the state Capitol on April 7th of this year, immediately after the bills passed.

The first bill, HB 322, was a bathroom bill.

And for Finn, would mean he'd have to use the girl's restroom, not his single stall in the teacher's lounge.

The second bill, SB 184, made it a felony to provide any minor in the state with gender-affirming medical care, meaning Finn wouldn't have access to the hormones that could help him with his voice.

As Representative Allen explains, he and his colleagues believe that teenagers are too young for this kind of treatment.

Their minds are not fully developed to make these decisions on these medications and surgeries, and that's what the bill is about, to protect minors.

To be clear, the American Medical Association, the American Association of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, a whole bunch of groups all say kids should have access to gender-affirming medical care and oppose legislation like this.

I went to visit Finn and Jodi in May, shortly after the bills passed, but before Jodi had had a chance to sit down and tell Finn about them.

She told me she held off when she first heard, because the fate of the medical bill was immediately thrown into question by a court challenge, and she didn't want to disturb Finn unless it turned out to be absolutely necessary.

But then, the first night I was there, Finn, Jodi and I were sitting around talking, and the subject of the legislation came up, and suddenly we found ourselves inside the conversation that Jodi had been delaying, the conversation where she explained to Finn that a bathroom bill had passed and would become official law over the summer break, so when Finn started 10th grade in the fall, he might be forced to use the girl's bathroom.

The bathroom bill, you know, that's supposed to go into effect on July 1st of this year, which means if nothing happens and there's not anything to come up and stop it at the start of the school year, that's an effect.

What do you mean?

As soon as Finn heard about the bathroom bill, his face drained of color, and you could see tears in his eyes.

It's okay to be upset.

We are upset with you.

Jodi told Finn she knew this was not the news that he wanted to hear, but she felt like he needed to understand now that there could be a different arrangement in the fall.

She said she had talked to the school principal, who in the past had been incredibly helpful and kind to Jodi and Finn.

Even he was like, look, we don't know what's going to happen.

We don't know.

We're all going to try to hold out hope that things go the way we want them to.

And if things don't go the way that you deserve them to go as a human being, we'll go from there and regroup.

Jodi started talking through some of the regrouping options, but Finn just sat silent, saying nothing.

Then one of the many animals who live in the house appeared in the doorway.

It was Finn's personal cat, Simon.

Well, Simon immediately knows you're upset because he's racing right up here.

What a baby.

We're going to figure it out.

All is not lost.

I can always bring my Bible up there and whack him with it if I need to.

You okay?

Okay.

A couple of weeks after this conversation, school let out, and I didn't see or talk to Finn and Jodi until August, right before the start of the school year.

Jodi told me that Finn had had a good summer.

He's in his first long-term relationship with a 16-year-old who lives one town over.

They spent a lot of time together.

They watched YouTube, went roller skating, and of course, spent countless hours playfully insulting each other in that way that teenagers always do.

Also over the summer, the bathroom bill that so distressed Finn quietly became law.

Jodi told me that a couple of days before my visit, she'd reached out to the school principal to see if they'd keep Finn's accommodation and was eventually told that Finn would have access to the bathroom, but only Finn and only as long as no other kid in school came out or complained in any way.

For whatever reason, Finn had been grandfathered in, but the door was closed behind him.

Jodi said Finn was deeply discouraged by the arrangement and that after he'd found out, he'd taken a nosedive in terms of mood.

He was sure the bathroom would be taken away and that people would be even worse about using the right pronouns.

Jodi said he started talking almost relentlessly about dropping out.

It wasn't just the law, she said, but after the difficulty of the previous year, this extra piece of weight felt to him like it, quote, sealed his fate.

It's true that the Finn I found when I returned to Grove Hill felt like a different kid.

He seemed much smaller than before, emotionally, even physically, and you could tell from the way that he was talking that he was in that kind of pain that bubbles out into the open even when you don't want it to.

For example, towards the start of our conversation, I asked what I thought would be a fun warm-up question.

I'd been privately wondering, how would I begin this story?

What was the right way to introduce this kid to people like you?

So I asked Finn to decide for himself.

Okay.

If you could choose, how would the story of you start?

I don't know.

Just a kid trying to be happy.

Why do you look like you're about to cry?

Because you're about to cry?

Are you saying that makes me want to?

Is it about going back to school?

I mean, I don't want to.

I don't like school.

We talked about the bathroom workaround, how precarious it was.

I was glad that they still kept the bathroom for me, but I also think it's stupid that if anyone else wants to feel comfortable at school in a bathroom sense, like they can't.

Finn's solution, if the bathroom got taken away, is what a lot of people do in this situation.

Bathrooms taken away from me, I'll just not use the bathroom.

At school all day?

Yeah, just avoid drinks, I guess, breakfast, because I really don't use the bathroom that much anyways at school.

In the weeks before this story was scheduled to air, I called around to some of the lawyers and caregivers in Alabama who monitored trans kids to find out what they were seeing.

And the reports I got back were pretty grim.

One lawyer told me that she was getting reports that even the kids who always loved school were suddenly resistant to going, and there were serious concerns that there would be increased incidents of self-harm.

In a way, despite how difficult this has been for him, Finn is kind of a best case scenario.

He has parents who unconditionally support him.

Hi Finn, how are you doing?

It's been so long, how are you?

Yeah, it's been a month, yeah.

A few days ago, I spoke with Finn for the first time since I visited in August, and found out that he was doing surprisingly well.

How are the teachers treating you so far this year?

The teachers are good, like no problem with some.

Finn said all his teachers were being respectful about pronouns and name stuff this year, and though there had been a couple of incidents, including a pretty serious fistfight, he was holding on for sure.

No one had come forward to complain about the bathroom, and no other kids had come out.

So Finn found himself preoccupied with less existential problems.

Grades trying to get ungrounded, fully hanging out with friends, trying not to mess something.

Speaking grades, I get all A's.

You got all A's on your report card?

Yeah.

Congratulations.

Thank you.

It was all like low A's though, I think two of them were 92s.

Finn told me he doesn't think about the laws every day, but when he does, they make him mad.

I guess just because I'm a kid, I don't get why people will decide to do certain laws that have nothing to do with them.

I think it's stupid, anyway.

Finn and his family are doing what they can to adapt, and they did have a small victory recently because of a different law, one that's been on the books forever.

It lets anyone change their name to whatever they want.

Finn and Jodi got the paperwork done over the summer, and a few weeks ago, a new Social Security card arrived in the mail.

In the eyes of the law, Finn is now Finn's official name.

No teacher or legislator can say anything different.

Still, the laws passed earlier this year hover in the air as Finn goes about his day.

From his perspective, they don't protect him, they just create obstacles.

They've made the job of being Finn more difficult.

Elise Beagle is one of the producers of our show.

One more thing before we close this serial bar down.

I saw an article recently as I was working on this episode from NBC News, and it weirdly connects the two stories in today's show in a way I did not see coming.

It's an investigation into a popular conspiracy theory.

Maybe you've heard it.

It is that schools all across the country are offering litter boxes to kids who identify as cats.

If you hadn't heard this one, sorry.

This is all over social media.

The story is, kids are telling their schools they're cats and schools are accommodating them by providing litter boxes.

At least 20 Republican politicians have repeated that this is happening, that this is, quote, a growing crisis, that schools are just allowing kids to identify as whatever they want.

This gender identity stuff has gone too far and there are kids who are only communicating in quote, barks and hisses.

And it's gotten so extreme that school children are now using litter boxes.

So that's the rumor.

NBC News looked into this.

They investigated each one of these claims and tried to find schools where this is actually happening.

They reached out to every school rumored to have a litter box over 20 places and they found one.

A whole school district in Colorado.

They had kitty litter.

But they were not keeping it because kids were identifying as animals.

No kids were identifying as animals.

The district, Jefferson County School District, is home to Columbine High School.

Schools in the Jefferson District have cat litter in case they have to go into lockdown during a school shooting.

The litter is part of their overall plan if there is an active shooter situation.

They have litter and buckets so kids have somewhere to pee.

They have a litter box in the front that's not in a bottle in a closet.

They've kept cat litter on hand for years, along with candy for diabetic students, a map of the school, flashlights, wet wipes, and first aid items.

The litter boxes are about school shootings.

I don't know.

I just keep thinking about the hours we've spent talking about kitty litter and the money we're spending this non-issue, a series of talking points, on top of other non-issues that also became talking points about where kids pee in school.

When in America, we don't have a problem of kids seeing their cats and being provided with litter boxes.

What we have are adults who have accepted that school shootings will continue to happen and they're preparing.

What we have, which kids will tell you, is an actual problem, actual threats, actual fear, actual trauma, actual deaths.

Our program was produced today by Nadia Raymond and edited by Laura Starczewski.

Valerie Kipnis produced the prologue of the episode.

The people who put together today's show include Chris Benderev, Sean Cole, Michael Kometay, Aviva D'Cornfeld, Cassie Howley, Tovan Lowe, Miki Mek, Stowe Nelson, Captain Raimondo, Ryan Rummary, Alyssa Ship, Lily Sullivan, Christopher Swatala, Marisa Robertson-Texter, Matt Tierney, Nancy Uptake, and Diane Wu.

Our managing editor is Sara Abduraman, senior editor, David Kessenbaum, and our executive editor, Emmanuel Berry.

Special thanks today to Rachel Lissy, Sidney Duncan, Dylan Nettles, Rose Sacks at the ACLU for helping us count laws, and all the parents who gave us permission to talk to their children.

The story about lockdowns was inspired by the Sleet podcast Mom and Dad Are Fighting, where I first heard Dan Coy's share his experience.

Original music in act two by Christina Korton and Michael Laval, editorial support for that story from Tuck Woodstock.

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 750 episodes for absolutely free.

There's videos and lists of favorite shows and tons of other stuff there.

Again, ThisAmericanLife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks as always to my boss Ira Glass.

He's out this week, but he called just to remind everyone that dressing up for Halloween is optional at our office.

I'm not going to force anybody.

I'm not putting masks on anybody.

That's not my job.

I'm Kanna Jaffee-Walt.

We'll be back next week with more stories of ThisAmericanLife.

Next week on the podcast of ThisAmericanLife.

I have the schnapps here.

I want to make sure that we all kind of drink the schnapps.

Three years back, Republicans and Democrats in Ohio did something you never see.

They came together past two constitutional amendments to end gerrymandering in the state.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, who's big on this issue, showed up to toast them with Austrian schnapps.

Very nice.

Does everyone have their schnapps?

Cheers to everybody.

But then the same Republican leadership that did that drew the maps for this year's election.

And they're gerrymandered, unconstitutional, but they're still using them.

Now, next week on the podcast, earn your local public radio station.