Pearl-Cohn students

Pearl-Cohn High School students in 2017

So we can’t tell kids about vaccines they’re eligible to get. We can’t let them read Ta-Nehisi Coates or learn about Ruby Bridges. We have to pretend like trans people don’t exist. And we have to argue every year about whether we can tell young people about sex.

Back in my day, just about every other movie, TV show and song was about how no one understood us and our parents were clueless. Your perfectly nice mom could be dating the head vampire. Your mean dad might ban dancing in your county. We had a whole trope about how a boy became a man not when he had sex for the first time, but when he was finally able to beat the shit out of his dad and his dad no longer dared hit him. Garth Brooks even had a song about it. A family of crooks could chase you through a series of underground tunnels while you’re trying to save your houses from foreclosure and who the hell knows where your parents might be. Shoot, that was if you even had parents. Most of our TV shows were about cute orphans being taken in by the elderly.

It was an important lesson, even if it resulted in all of us needing years of therapy: Your parents don’t know everything, and they don’t always make the right choices, and you have to figure out how to take care of yourself, sometimes in spite of them.

Kids, if they tell you that you can’t read something, read it. If they tell you that it’s too dangerous for you to know about something, learn about it. If you have questions, ask them. At the least, watch Footloose and marvel at how it’s still relevant.

What I wonder is what happens when kids do figure this stuff out. Like, let’s say you’re 16 and you have a friend at school who gets COVID and ends up in the hospital. You get a firsthand look at how much your friend suffers. You watch the long-term effects. And you have to know that your parents wouldn’t take any steps to prevent that from happening to you.

Or what happens when you read Ta-Nehisi Coates and you find he’s a really skilled writer who’s given you a lot to think about, but he didn’t make you immediately hate all white people? Don’t you feel annoyed that your parents and/or your school board thought you were too immature or stupid to handle that?

Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee Republicans are standing on a pile of 12,600 COVID corpses, and their best ideas for Tennessee all revolve around making it illegal for kids to know anything their parents don’t want them to know. We are watching the formation of M. Knight Shyamalan’s The Village, where the outside world is held at bay through a series of elaborate, violent lies to the detriment of the village’s children.

Republicans are supposed to be the “pro-life” party, but they legitimately would rather their kids risk death than defy them. They prefer their constituents’ deaths over the unpleasantness of trying to convince them of the importance of getting vaccinated. And they’ve kept their constituents distracted from the fact that they are letting them die by promising them no one ever has to learn of all the ways we've screwed up in the past — like racism and homophobia and such.

Y’all, I am terrified. We’re sending kids who can’t yet get vaccinated back to school. Fewer than two out of every five people who can get vaccinated in this state have been fully. We still don’t know what the long-term effects of COVID are, and some people who have had the vaccine are still getting COVID (though thankfully, not dying). And we’re not learning from the past. Look at how many stories we’re seeing about the current spike in COVID cases as if it is some big mystery why that’s happening two weeks after the Fourth of July.

Does it help to repeat things? I don’t know. But here’s to trying: Getting the vaccine is much safer than getting COVID when you’re unvaccinated. Dying of COVID is a horrible way to die, and it is genuinely evil to subject people you love to it when you could have prevented it. Almost everyone you see on TV or read on the internet who is telling you that the vaccine is dangerous and you don’t need it? They're vaccinated. Your elected officials prefer you ignorant and angry and believing that reality is some liberal conspiracy against you. And when it finally gets bad enough — though honestly, if 12,600 people dead isn’t bad enough, it’s hard to know what would be — all these people are going to flip-flop over and claim they advocated for vaccines from the start and that it’s not their fault you got sick and died. They will probably claim it was probably some Democratic conspiracy to kill off Republican voters. They are not loyal to you, and they are not advocating positions that have your best interests at heart. Get vaccinated.

And yes, your kids are going to learn things that make you uncomfortable. They’re going to have opinions you detest. They’re going to express themselves in ways that you don’t understand. And if they find out you’ve been lying to them or keeping things from them, they’re going to be rightfully hurt and angry.

And while I’m out here spitting hard truths, let me just say, Gov. Lee, if you truly are thinking you can spin this mess into presidential aspirations, you are getting bad advice. I hate Trump, but he undeniably has charisma and comedic timing. You are about as engaging as a pile of already-snapped green beans.

Once you’re done hiding at the border, come home and go out and meet with your constituents and tell them to get vaccinated. Tell them to vaccinate their kids. Think of it this way: If you can develop the communication skills to convince Tennesseans to get vaccinated, you can feel pretty confident that you can convince people at a national level to support you.

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