Monday, November 16, 2009

A young man show's fidelity to the ideals of the Pledge by refusing to say it

Meet my new hero: a 10 year-old boy from Arkansas.  He has made headlines, earning himself an interview on CNN, for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school each morning.  In his own words, he spent some time one weekend thinking about the actual words of the Pledge.  Like most school children across the country, he is asked (expected) to recite those words every morning.  But as a wannabe future lawyer, he felt he needed to think about the words and decide if he really could swear to them every morning.  (So cute!)  After considering the line "with liberty and justice for all," he concluded that he could not swear that his nation truly upheld those values.  He first cited a lack of equality for gays and lesbians, specifically marriage equality, but also mentioned what he views as still fairly wide-spread racism and sexism (and I won't pretend I disagree with him).  His teacher and his classmates did not let his stand (in the form of a refusal to stand) go unnoticed.  Other kids in his class called him names, suggesting that he must be gay.  I'm not sure exactly what the teacher said, but I get the gist that the teacher thought the boy was just trying to cause trouble.  After a few days, the boy had gotten a little fed up with his teacher and told her, "With all due respect, you can go jump off a bridge."  This landed him in the principal's office and, ultimately, in the headlines.

There are so many ways to run with this story. 

I have always had a problem with the Pledge of Allegiance.  I have never, ever uttered the part "Under God."  My mother taught it to me without those words because that's the way it was originally written.  Those two words were only added by Congress in the 1950s in response to McCarthyism and the red scare.  That alone would be reason enough for me not to say those words because it would be in some small way condoning the efforts of the Committee on un-American Activities.  And, of course, as an atheist, I'm not going to pledge allegiance to some fictional character I don't believe exists. 

But far beyond those objections, I have always been troubled by the way we thoughtlessly expect children to recite this pledge every day by rote.  Pictures of rows of little kids standing at attention, hands over heart, pledging allegiance because their teacher told them to kinda give me the creeps.  As an adult, I'm always uncomfortable when I find myself in a place where someone suggests we should all recite the Pledge.  I usually stand because it's easier than refusing, which always results in nasty looks and mumbled comments, but I don't recite it.  It just feels too wrong to be expected to recite the pledge to an audience.  My oath of loyalty to my country is private.  But if I feel so much public pressure to conform as a strong-willed adult, just think how kids feel. 

Pledging allegiance to a nation should never be something done so automatically, without any thought or meaning behind it, or done to avoid being called names on the playground.  It should only be a freely-made choice, like entering a marriage or choosing a faith.  It's like baptizing babies: the babies don't know what's going on, so how can the baptism itself mean anything?  We should encourage children to learn the pledge, think about it, and claim it only if and when they really feel it.  We shouldn't use peer pressure or a teacher's authority to coerce kids into reciting the pledge.  We certainly shouldn't harass students who exercise their rights and choose not to say the pledge. 

The teacher's role in this story shouldn't be overlooked.  During the interview, the father seemed embarrassed by the fact that his son talked back to the teacher, but no one seemed eager to chastise the teacher for giving a student a hard time.  Sure, the kid probably shouldn't have told his teacher to jump off a bridge, but I'm not sure how a 10 year-old is supposed to respond to an adult who isn't respecting that kid's rights.  To me, the shame in that situation is on the adult in the position of authority who harassed the kid, putting him on the spot to defend himself.

So I applaud this young man for thinking about the pledge, deciding what it means for himself, and asserting his unwillingness to go along with the crowd.  If he were 11 years older, I would totally buy him a beer.


Moxie said...

That kid is going to make one hell of a lawyer. ;-)

Lisa Johnson said...

His parents should be SO proud of him! They must have taught him well and/or he has some innate strength and wisdom.

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