Standing up for the right to stay seated

December 02, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I'll match my patriotism with anybody's. You say "America," I get a lump in the throat. You sing "God Bless America," I'm reaching for hankies. Every time I see the Statue of Liberty, I tell my family, "There's our girl." But, on the issue of kids in a classroom not standing up to salute the flag, I pledge allegiance to those refusing to pledge allegiance. To me, that's the American way.

And America still includes the state of Maryland, a fact that apparently comes as news to some of our public school teachers, who wish to create marionettes instead of citizens.

These teachers apparently don't like it when certain students refuse to rise and salute the flag with the rest of their classmates. I don't like it when these teachers fail to understand the simplest elements of American civics: Their job is to teach these kids to think - and not to tell them what to think - even when these kids disagree with what the majority of people around them believe.

As The Sun's Liz Bowie reported the other day, we had an 11th-grader at Chesapeake High in Essex who stayed seated and refused to recite the Pledge with the rest of her classmates. The girl's teacher ordered her to stand up. The girl's family, feeling pushed around, enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, which then alerted state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick about what it says is a growing number of complaints they are receiving from students who say they're being harassed by teachers when they refuse to salute the flag.

To which I ask: In which country do these teachers think they live? A country that wants to cultivate citizens who think for themselves, or a country that demands group-think at all costs? A country that allows freedom of expression, or a country that believes we jeopardize our traditional rights by daring to express them?

I'm like everybody else who grew up in America. One morning early in my schooling, I was told to stand up with the rest of my class and salute the flag. This was the old P.S. 20, just off Harford Avenue below North.

"Stand for the salute," Miss Price said.

I had no idea what she meant, and no idea what the words meant. Most of us didn't even know how to pronounce a bunch of them. What mattered at that point, though, weren't words or definitions. What mattered was piecing together a daily kind of patriotic group instinct to carry us through the years.

"I pledge allegiance," we said.

"Allegiance?" What in the world did that mean?

" ... of the United States of America ... "

OK, that part sounded familiar.

" ... and to the republic, for which it stands ... "

"Republic?" What in the world was a republic? Something to do with the Republican Party?

As the years went by, we learned the distinction: A republic, the history teachers explained, was a government in which power resided with citizens, and these citizens elected officers who were responsible to the citizens, and these officers governed according to laws.

That sounded pretty good. I liked that part about citizens having the power and assumed it meant the power to think for ourselves.

Except that, by the time all of this "republic" business was explained to us, we'd been saluting the flag every single morning in our classrooms, week after week, year after year. The pledge was a blur, recited strictly by rote. Much of the power the words had to move us emotionally had long since been numbed by repetition.

" ... one nation, under God ... "

Under God? Whose God? What about those kids who didn't believe in God? (By the time we got to high school, this was a fairly sizable group. They were starting to question things. Isn't that what an education's all about?)

" ... indivisible ... "

(Which half the kids thought was "invisible." ... )

" ... with liberty and justice for all."

For all? But so much of our history declared those words a lie. We were a nation built upon the backs of slaves, a nation that for many years denied voting rights to blacks and to women, a nation that dispensed justice to all who could actually afford it.

But we salute the flag, most of us, because of its symbolism. Whatever the nation's actual shortcomings, we're still a work in progress. We're doing our best. In the meantime, we salute the country's ideals, as embodied by the flag. It unites us behind those beliefs, and comforts us in difficult times. It reminds us of our strivings. The pledge tells us we're not alone in our beliefs. Old Glory, we call the flag. You say those words, I'm breaking out in goose bumps.

Because I understand, even as I'm saluting that flag, that my country gives each of us the right to say a simple word: no.

And that right extends to school kids, even when - or, especially when - they have the courage to stand (or not stand) alone. And think things through at their own pace, and decide what they really believe in. And not have to be hassled by teachers who haven't figured out yet what an American education actually means.

michael.olesker@baltsun.com

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