One of the shared memories people of my generation have is a morning ritual that at one time took place in schools across the United States: the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
I don't know how many people thought about the words they were saying and how many simply said them, but I was lucky enough to have teachers and family members who taught me at an early age the symbolic importance of the American flag and the values which it represents.
It has been a long time since students in most American schools opened their days standing, facing the American flag and saying the Pledge. In Missouri, it is mandated that public schools say it once a week. At South Middle School, we do it on Monday mornings, at the conclusion of morning announcements over the intercom.
It has become painfully obvious that patriotism is not as highly prized as it was during my youth. We are required to have the Pledge of Allegiance read but students have the freedom not to say the Pledge; they even have the freedom not to stand for the Pledge and more and more of them are exercising that freedom- a freedom they would not have if they were living in most other countries in the world.
Knowing that the students have the right not to say the Pledge, I have always made it clear to the students who do not join in that they are not to say a word during the Pledge, that they must at the least show common courtesy. I would much prefer that they be standing and joining in with the Pledge, but this is America and we do have the freedom, as shortsighted and selfish as it may be, not to appreciate this country and its most powerful symbol.
During a classroom discussion Friday, the Pledge issue came up. A young girl said she hated this country. I was stunned when I heard that, though I probably should not have been since teenagers always love to say things that shock adults. A couple of other students, including one with family in Iraq, were ready to verbally tear this girl's head off. I told them I would let them have their say, but I reminded them that this country prides itself on the First Amendment- we have freedom of speech and freedom of thought. When we try to silence those whose beliefs we do not share, we are tearing at the very fabric of the American flag.
I told the students about my problems with the apathy during the weekly recitation of the Pledge- and my belief that even the students who do not believe in its words should show the courtesy of standing silently as the others say them.
In the discussion Friday and in past classroom discussions, I have heard students talk about what they do not like about the United States- with this particular girl it involved what she perceived as the government's prejudice against gays, with others it has been the war in Iraq, a refusal to pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth, or just "it's stupid." It's hard to make a convincing argument to someone with that mindset.
Don't take this as an indictment of today's youth; it is not. I stopped talking and listened as the students began to make a heartfelt case for saying the Pledge of Allegiance and make their case for the United States of America.
As they noted, when we recite the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, we are not swearing to blindly follow our political leaders, we are saying that we believe in what this country stands for- "liberty and justice for all." Many of the students realized the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance. The United States is not perfect, no country is. It is not this country's perfection to which we are pledging, but those basic ideals. The flag is a symbol of what this country stands for, and judging from what I heard during the discussion, no matter what people may say about today's youth, some of our young people understand this concept and they have a deep appreciation of this country.
Unfortunately, there are many others who don't have the slightest idea of what this country is all about.