Pacific Palisades, Calif. -- Six elementary school school students held up one of the banners in the town's big Fourth of July parade: ''Essay Winners.'' For the past three years, a local real estate office has sponsored a contest open to kids here in the third through the sixth grades. The subjects and winning entries have said something about the mood of America on our national holiday.
''Sharing the American Dream'' was this year's theme, which produced entries a bit more somber than last year's ''My American Hero.'' That was the year parades were dominated by Desert Storm. This year the great victory in the mother of all wars was not mentioned. There were no floats, no banners -- as if it never happened.
This year's winners did write of sharing, of community, of problems, of helping other people. ''The way I see my country is like a big giant pot of love,'' began the third-grade winner, Whitney Crear of Corpus Christi, the local Catholic school.
Nice. But the fourth-grade winner from the same school, John Dickson, showed a tougher eye, saying:
''I see that people are hurting each other . . . When I turn on the news I see people getting shot in their own homes by stray bullets from gangs. When I look at the ocean I see trash floating and dead fish. Sometimes the sewer makes the ocean too dirty to swim in. I see that some people are too scared to go out and walk on the street . . . Sometimes it's so smoggy, I can't go outside because the air will make my asthma worse. In a better world there is a fair government and honest citizens who care about the world and each other.''
''My American dream is peace. I try to share this dream, but it is hard,'' said Meaghan O'Keefe, the fifth-grade runner-up, also from Corpus Christi. ''There is fighting going on every day in America. My dream is for this to stop.''
The third-grade runner-up, Marisa Peck-Frankel of the Village School, must have warmed the heart of the contest's organizer, Carole Trapani of Jon Douglas Realty, by beginning:
''The American dream is to be free and to have a home of your own. The way to share the American dream is by becoming a teacher or a tutor so you can help people get a good education. It is very important to get a good education because you need to get a good career because some freedoms you have to buy. The freedom of living in your own home costs money.''
A year ago, while the adults of Los Angeles were cheering Desert Storm veterans, the kids of the Palisades seemed to have different kinds of heroes on their minds.
The 1991 third-grade winner, Christina Won of the Village School, chose Abraham Lincoln. The fourth-grade winner, Hilary Kerrigan Palisades Elementary, chose her baby sitter, Beatriz Hernandez, who was working as many jobs as she could get to send money back to her husband and children caught in El Salvador's civil war.
The theme of the first contest in 1990 was ''What Freedom Means to Me.'' Some of the essays were just great. Arguing for freedom of religion, Marquez third-grader David Schlacter said, ''If you don't like any of the well known religions like Catholic, Christians or Jewish, then I think you should be able to make up a religion of your own.''
And, said Rumi Mayeda, a fifth-grader at Palisades:
''Freedom, to me, is like riding a bicycle for the first time. It's hard to stay on it without falling off. But, once we learn to ride it, we never forget it. In the same way, once we learn what freedom of ideas, speech, or action is like, we can never forget it.''
Can't beat that. Won't try.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.