The first lie that I ever told my daughter was on a Tuesday. She was a month and a half old. That morning, feeling restless and uneasy, I rose before dawn, dressing in the dark. This was a relief, because I did not have to catch a glance of my body in the mirror- my stretched and wrinkled stomach that reminded me of jiggly cottage cheese. Instead, I was a dark shadow floating across the room. Since I was still on maternity leave, I savored the luxury of pulling on my favorite soft leggings and a soft button-up flannel- easy for breast feeding. Behind the gauzy white curtain hanging over the window, the sunrise was painting the sky an early golden pink, streaking the dark morning with the first rays of light. Who fully knows the tricks that our memories play on us when looking back, but when I think on that morning, it seems to me that the perfect golden moment that freezes time right before the real day begins, when the sun hangs just above the horizon, the quiet intake of breath before the day says “Go!”-the poets and the journeyers know what I’m talking about- that perfect golden moment lasted a little longer that morning. Perhaps it was because the universe knew that this was the final morning before the world would go completely mad, all reason would be thrown to the wind, and nothing would make sense again.
Beside me in her pale pink bassinet, my daughter sighed in her sleep, and smiled. She did this often. Sometimes I wondered if she was dreaming, and if she was, what she was dreaming about. In her short time in this world, what had she experienced that infiltrated her subconscious with happy thoughts? Was she dreaming of a warm nipple in her mouth, full of sweet milk? Her big brother making faces at her? Her father’s boisterous laughter? In the bed, her father shifted in his sleep, and let out a snore. The sound startled her, and she woke, turning her face and catching my eye. Her sleeping smile turned into a real smile. Reaching into her bassinet, I scooped her into my arms and settled on the edge of the bed, unbuttoning my shirt with one hand. I pressed her to my breast, helping her to find my nipple. As I stroked the hair from her forehead, she ate her breakfast voraciously and appreciatively. In the growing dawn, I knew that all was right with the world. I had woken with mixed feelings about the choice that I would have to make that day, knowing that despite my misgivings and disappointment, I was doing the right thing…the less horrible thing. But now, gazing at my daughter, standing at the cross-roads of a thousand possibilities, I found the sense of hope and excitement that I desperately wanted to feel today. Contentedly, she closed her eyes and began to drift back to her dreams. “Wake up, little lady,” I cooed to her. “Today is a big day for us girls. Today our country elects its first woman President.”
A small high school in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom drew wrath from the right this week, surrounding a public forum that was held to discuss the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and its place in school.
To set the context, the issue began at the beginning of this school year, when the school hired a new principal. A patriotic senior (as in student, not elder) approached the new principal and asked why the Pledge of Allegiance was not recited over the school’s public address system each morning. It turns out that there wasn’t really any definitive answer for that. Some people said that the school’s P.A. system had broken years ago and never been fixed…except that it seemed to be working now. Perhaps it had been fixed, and the pledge had just never brought back. Others said that it had stopped because it was meant to be led by a student, and no students were volunteering to lead it. Almost no one, it seemed however, was actually opposed to students saying the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning. Still, the new principal wanted to be thoughtful and intentional about how it would be reintegrated into the school day. This process began with the student council, who were elected representatives of their student body of each grade, discussing how the discussion would be rolled out to the rest of the students. It was decided that students would learn about the pledge in their morning advisory periods, which would include the history of the pledge, arguments for, against, and everywhere in between, reciting the pledge, and that the students would then develop group proposals together within their advisories addressing whether or not bringing the pledge back to their school would be a good move, and if so, how this should be done.
Every single one of the proposals that came back from the students indicated that the students believed that the pledge should be brought back to the school, and that students who didn’t want to recite it should sit silently during the very short period of time during which it was said. Ideas of how often it should be recited ranged from every day to once a week. Some students believed that the pledge should be led over the school’s public address system, some did not. Some believed that it should be led by a teacher, others by students. Some believed that it should be part of the school’s 5-minute morning announcement greeting led by students in the school’s public speaking course, and others believed that it should not be tied into any school curriculum, since this would require the students delivering the morning announcements to say it as part of an assignment for which they were receiving a grade. What if they didn’t want to say it? Overall, the discussions were very civil.
The penultimate step in the process was for the school to host a community meeting so that parents, alumni, and other community members with a vested interest in the outcome could weigh in on the discussion. The school would share the same resources with the community that they had shared with the students, and answer any lingering questions. Finally, following the forum, the issue would come full-circle back to the student council, who would adopt a school-wide proposal and facilitate its implementation among the students and faculty. Sounds great, right? Except for one thing. In this new age of full-on social media, the rumors had already begun flying.
It’s a sad but true fact that too many people these days receive their “news” from their Facebook feeds, their friends’ Instagram posts, or other social media sites, and then fail to factcheck. Almost as soon as the process began, the principal began receiving angry emails demanding to know why he was ending the Pledge of Allegiance, despite the fact that he had set in motion the steps being carried out to bring it back. A few days before the community meeting, an organized effort began online to drum up outrage for whatever was going on up at the high school. The principal was trying to get rid of the pledge! Students weren’t learning American values! It was disrespecting the veterans! An alumnus of the school tried to encourage enough people to attend to force the school to move the meeting from the auditorium to the school gym.
This would be a good place to pause, and explain a little bit about the community, and the culture, surrounding this debate. The Northeast Kingdom is a small region made up of three counties in the corner of Vermont. Some would call it isolated; others would call it insulated. Given it’s lack of racial diversity, it is nonetheless paradoxically home to some very different socioeconomic groups with a complex set of values. Prior to the 1960’s, when what might be described as “left-leaning liberals” flocked to the state to escape urban decay and lives of outdated suburban privilege, the community was made up almost entirely of mill workers, dairy farmers, and other blue-collar workers of the land whose families had been there for generations. The Back To The Land movement, which wasn’t recognized as a historical migration at the time, forever altered this dynamic. Today, those early generations of farmers and millworkers have bred even more generations, who have grown up with the children of the hippies who moved here forty years ago. Now, they are having their own children. In addition, others have moved here as well for a variety of other reasons: winter sports, the growing agricultural/artisan economy that includes some of the world’s acknowledged best microbreweries and cheese operations, or perhaps they have moved here for the same reasons as before-to escape the cities and raise their children in fresh air. All of these factors have swirled together to breed a new Northeast Kingdom…one in which most people are, like the song, a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll. In a state that voted blue in the 2016, the Northeast Kingdom was the lone outlier voting red. Yet it is also the region in which Bernie Sanders spent his youth, hanging out on hippie communes.
Sitting on the southern border of the Northeast Kingdom, less than an hour from the more urban and white-collar state capital, the community in question is at the center of it all. Each spring, the town’s recreation field hosts what is referred to locally as the Redneck Games, in which students often skip a day of school to compete at logging and forestry events. Just around the corner, a weekly anti-war protest takes place across from the health-food coop, where the same small group of people has been standing on the same slab of sidewalk for years, holding up signs asking drivers to honk for peace. Up the hill, at the high school, basketball is God. Nearly everyone in town comes out for the home games, which begin with the National Anthem. On the wall of the gym hangs a retired jersey that belonged to one of the school’s greatest players ever, one who will never be forgotten. After graduating high school, this young man made the brave decision to join the armed forces and fight for his country. A few years later, he bravely died for his country. Every person in town, every student attending that high school, even fifteen years later, still knows his name. In a town hungry for heroes, his name has been, perhaps rightly so, immortalized. For this reason, and others like it, American values run deep. The patriotic feelings involved are strong, well-intentioned, and sincere. The flag, to many, is a symbol of veterans, and respecting our troops. That is why the idea that the school would do anything to undermine the values for which it stands, lead to such immediate outrage. But what are those values for which it stands?
In the end, there were a few dozen people in attendance at the community meeting. This included a mix of students, faculty, parents, school board members, alumni, and a news team from the state’s most-watched news station. Someone had called them and told the it was going to be a barn-burner. While a few emotions did run high, the report the next day from those who had been there was that it was civil…”ish.” The news team aired the story that night, and the comment-fest began.
The verdict in the court of public opinion was overwhelming yes, the pledge should be brought back to the school, just as anyone could have predicted that it would be. Some comment-posters added the caveat that perhaps with the words “under God” removed, returning it to its original version. But some of the comments were vicious, and unpatriotic in their rabid patriotic fervor. It should be mandatory for ALL students! Anyone who wouldn’t say it shouldn’t be in a position of leadership! Anyone who wouldn’t say it shouldn’t be in America! Any school that wouldn’t say it should lose all public tax dollars! Herein, of course, lies the inherent problem.
To demand that ALL students, or anyone for that matter, be forced to deliver an oath of loyalty does not promote patriotism. It flies in the face of democracy, and the very values which anyone who feels that it should be forced upon a country’s citizens seems to believe themselves to possess. In fact, in a widely known case, the Supreme Court actually ruled on this in 1943, deciding in the favor of students that mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance was a violation of their First Amendment rights. So there’s a bit of irony in the idea that someone is supporting our troops, and everything they lived and died for, by suggesting that the school undermine one of our branches of government and pillars of democracy.
Moreover, the assertion that those who will not pledge their love and loyalty to America should leave the country should be examined with an equally critical mind. Just as, to many, the flag is a symbol of veterans, to others it is a symbol of our government. Given the actions of said government as of late, there does exist a group of people who prefer to break ties with our government and disassociate themselves from what they see as decisions and policies that do not reflect their values…policies that seem more like those in a dictatorship than a democracy. These policies include a month-long government shutdown over the issue of a highly controversial border wall that many see as racist and nationalistic. Incident after incident after incident of police brutality, sometimes even leading to death, by police officers who are then exonerated in public courts. Billionaires who are in control of a disgusting and needless amount of wealth while countless others are losing their homes or living in the street. These are just a handful of the issues that make some people want to say, “Not my government!” To them, the idea that there is “liberty and justice for all” in this country is a lie. Should they be coerced, manipulated, or pressured into saying what they believe is a lie? Should these people really have to move? Anti-pledgers have their loyalties too…loyalties to their families, their homes, their communities. Their love for this country runs just as deep. So when the the time comes that their government has become what they may consider oppressive, incompetent, and tyrannical, it isn’t their homes that they should cut ties with. It’s their government. The Declaration of Independence says, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
The decision to not rise for the Pledge of Allegiance, and the decision to not recite it, is an act of civil disobedience aimed towards trying to make the country one loves a better place. This is a freedom for which our veterans fought and sometimes died for. Patriotism is not a poem, patriotism is a series of actions, and a habit of living. Patriotism is voting, it is paying taxes, it is attending town meetings, and it is speaking up when our government is wrong. Patriotism is not watching out for our government..it is watching out for our country. It is disingenuous and hypocritical to scream (or post) that our veterans died for your rights, but then to object when people use those rights.
A final question for thought: How many people who demand that schools must say the pledge every morning actually say it themselves every morning? Or even once a week? Why are our schools one of the few places in our society in which it is expected that its attendees, often including adults, must rise and give this oath of loyalty on such a regular basis? Is it because schools are tax-payer funded? If so, then road crews, mailmen, and police officers should all have to begin their days with the pledge. Is it because the students need to learn about love our country and their civic duties? If that is an answer, than their parents should be teaching them. Because that is a value. And schools are not supposed to teach values…or so the rabidly right says, when other values, such as racism and homophobia are brought in schools.
The students in this situation are being used as political pawns to refocus the issue on another partisan agenda, or perhaps a handful of them. The real truth is that the school is at the tail end of this deeply considered process of bringing back the pledge. It probably will be reinstated by next week, according to the principal. The best part is that the students learned more from the research that they were required to conduct into its origins and the act of civil discourse among each other than they could have possibly learned through blind recitation. And now it will be back. So everyone wins.