A pledge and instruction to do as I say not as I did

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“I pledge allegiance to the flag…”

Do I, though? I mean, it’s a scrap of cloth, right?

“…Of the United States of America….”

Are we really united?

“….One nation, under God….”

Whose version of God? I don’t even know if I believe in God.

“….with liberty and justice for all.”

This I know to be untrue. I have witnessed injustice, experienced it.

When I was in the fifth grade, I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance. My classmate, a Jehovah’s Witness, didn’t say the pledge because it conflicted with her beliefs. I thought it through, decided the pledge conflicted with my beliefs as well, and stopped reciting it. For a while I stood next to Linda, or rather, hid behind her during the daily recitation. One day, however, I folded my little arms across my chest and sat down.

It is safe to say I had more conviction than social wisdom.

In 1976, students didn’t opt out of the pledge, except for religious reasons. I wasn’t a rebel by nature; only months before, my classmates and I marched in our little town’s parade to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial. I paraded with the same patriotic glee as my classmates, wishing I’d had the foresight to wear something red, white, and blue like the other children. However, when cynicism overrode desire to belong, I could no longer justify reciting what seemed to me to be hollow words. I endured taunts of “Communist” for the rest of the school year as I silently sat out the pledge.

There were moments I wished I could have quietly gone back to standing and reciting, but the act had taken on a life of its own. I’d missed the window of opportunity to be like everyone else, and although I wasn’t exactly sure what a communist was, I wore the badge with a mix of pride and shame. Some days it meant “bold,” and some days it signified “weird.”

My teacher never addressed the subject. I feared and adored him, and wanted his approval desperately; if he’d ordered me to stand and recite, I would have done so. Ten year olds can be so easily swayed.

I reflected on this experience recently, after a Florida sixth grader was arrested for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in class. The substitute teacher called a school administrator, who then called the police. The boy was charged with disrupting a school function and resisting police without violence. The substitute teacher was fired, and the student transferred to another school.

At the school in which I now teach, the pledge is read over the intercom on Monday mornings. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Put your right hand over your heart. Ready? Begin.” Most elementary school students know this prelude as well as the pledge itself.

Over the past few decades of teaching, I have become fairly passive about the pledge. I say the pledge along with the students, because it’s easy, because I don’t want parent complaints, because I don’t have time during the day to dedicate to a discussion of the merits or drawbacks to the Pledge of Allegiance. So many of my students are immigrants or first-generation Americans that my classroom becomes the bridge to successfully negotiating life in the U.S. Among my other tasks, I feel a responsibility to teach them the unstated social codes that will help them integrate and be accepted. If my students stand out in the world, I want it to be because they are extraordinary, not because they are disrespectful or uneducated.

At the beginning of each school year, I take inventory of my fifth grade class. While Jehovah’s Witnesses are not expected to take part in reciting the pledge, everyone else is. Some years, I have a poster with the words of the pledge on the wall, in case my English-learners need scaffolding. I remind students to stand straight, be respectful, face the flag, remember which is their right hand, take their knee off the chair, be still. I tell them that if they don’t wish to recite the words, they must at least stand quietly at attention. So far, no one has pushed back, at least not for philosophical reasons. Wigglers wiggle, and whisperers whisper, but no one has ever said, “I prefer not to say the pledge,” or “I prefer to remain seated.”

I’d like to believe that if a student chose to sit out the pledge, I would respond with intelligence and generosity. I’d give him a chance to explain his motives. I’d defend her from being bullied by classmates. I’d applaud independent thinking.

Until that student comes along, however, I stand and recite, knowing that I am setting a good example and perhaps a bad one as well.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I have several family members who are active or retired military, and a son who just enlisted. I respect their service. Both pledging allegiance and joining the military are far more nuanced than simple cheerleading for the land of one’s residence.

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