Basic economics for fourth graders, yoyos, and life lessons

On a beautiful day in the spring

I play with a toy on a string

            I teach kids not to smoke,

            So they’ll live long and not croak,

And have plenty of money for bling.


I am playing with a yoyo in front of a crowd of about  fifty fourth graders, teaching them economics, and in the process saving lives and stamping out disease. 

I start out by asking if they’ve ever heard the saying, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”  They all have heard it, and when I say “Raise your hand if you DON”T know what it means,” all the hands go up. 

The essence of economics, I explain, is that if you choose to do something, you choose not to do something else.  Then I hold up a cheap wooden yoyo, I do a few tricks, and I compare the cost of the yoyo to the cost of a pack of Marlboros.  Currently the smokes run $5.87 a pack, and I paid $3 for the yoyo fifteen years ago.  I pull out a $15 yoyo and I do a few more tricks.  I hand my calculator to a nerdy (I can use that work because I am a nerd) looking kid in the front row and have him calculate the Marlboro equivalency. 

I turn out the lights for the next one, it’s an $18 yoyo.  It is not particularly a good player but the kids love it because it lights up in the dark.

Then the $25 and the $32 yoyos come out one after another.  With each increase in yoyo price comes an increase in yoyo quality.  The kid who is running the calculator gives me the number of packs of Marlboros (much like the number of days of smoking) that could have been bought with the price of a yoyo.  I tell a few stories about the yoyo that I’m using and then I ask the kids which they would rather have, the cigarettes or the yoyo.  Invariably, they choose the yoyo.

I bring my Radian out from the vest pocket of the fishing vest I use for my yoyo shows.  I don’t particularly like the Radian though I can make it sleep for decades; it’s very difficult to make return.  But I do a long, involved series of tricks without rewinding.  I flub the retrieve but the kids don’t notice.  Then I announce the price, $105, and the students gasp.

I now have seven yoyos lined up on the desk at the front of the room.  I open up an octagonal cardboard box just big enough to hold a yoyo.

“This is a Samurai,” I say, “It’s a $200 yoyo.  If you can get one.  My wife bought it for my on our anniversary four years ago.”  Then I do The Matrix.

My hardest trick, The Matrix goes flawlessly through two rounds.  I can hear the breathless tension as the children watch the action.  The yoyo thumps firmly back into my hand and the room lets out a sigh of relief.

My calculator crony figures the yoyo would cost the same as 34 days of smoking.  When polled, the class would really much rather have the yoyo than thirty-four ashtrays full of cigarette butts and the health consequences of smoking. 

I explain why teenagers start smoking at age 15 and why they start with Marlboros.  I talk about the animal experiments, which completely grosses them out.

They call the program Tar Wars, a way of getting doctors and nurses out into the schools to try to get the message out:  DON’T SMOKE.

I have a great time at it.  I make the teaching tool concrete enough to be age appropriate.

Afterwards one of the students tells me about an uncle who died of alcoholism at age 36.  He had been dying of liver failure till he got into a fatal car accident.

Drama and irony.

At the end of a very long day I go to one of Sioux City’s best restaurants for a very good piece of beef and a lecture on some of the more esoteric physiologic points of blood pressure control.  I enjoy the science review, but I find the potatoes lukewarm, and the propaganda transparent.  After the internet broadcast a noted endocrinologist from Omaha gets up to speak, adding nothing new.  My words to the fourth graders come back:  If you choose to do something, you choose not to do something else.  I give him ten more minutes and I quietly stand and exit by the back door.  I have a lot of other things I could do with that time.


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