I Pledge a Lesson

In every public elementary school each day during the school year at the beginning of the first regularly scheduled class or activity period at which the majority of the pupils of the school normally begin the schoolday, there shall be conducted appropriate patriotic exercises. The giving of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America shall satisfy the requirements of this section.  — CAL. EDC. CODE § 52720 : California Code – Section 52720

Normally, I am one of those teachers least likely to be quoting the state’s Ed Code, unless, of course, my old colleague and I were complaining to our principal at my old school about another teacher, who used to leave her students running amok on the recess playground without credentialed adult supervision.

But given that this was a new school year, I had to admit that I wanted, and needed, a fresh start to go with it.

An iconic Dorothea Lange image, and my favorite. I have this hanging from the wall of my office at home.

An iconic Dorothea Lange image, and my favorite. I have this hanging from the wall of my office at home.

I had been lax in following through on doing this “appropriate patriotic exercise” over the years, although, as a 5th grade teacher, I did make sure that my kids learned about, as well as understood, the meaning of American symbols.  Still, at whatever school I find myself at, I quickly find myself as the resident “Pinko” on the staff.  For instance, the years up to, and immediately after the Iraq War, had, at my old school, led to a stratification amongst my colleagues, between those who supported the military action, and those of us who questioned it.  Naturally, in the early days, somehow disagreeing with a government that legally had to defend our rights to free speech, still, nonetheless, made us, somehow, unpatriotic.

Unpatriotic.  Yup.  Even though one of my signature lessons was my annual look at the historical basis for Longfellow’s Midnight Ride of Paul of Revere.

I guess teaching about William Dawes makes one hate America.

But in trying something new this year, I pledged to pledge.  But first, before we did anything, I told myself that I would, at least, give them some historical background on the POA’s history.  At least the idea was that my students would then realize what it was they were doing and why.  How this manifested in their own patriotic feelings going forward was up to them.

It was instructive for myself, as well, as I learned about things I didn’t even realize about the pledge…like this.

Thinking back upon my own nascent upbringing as a young American, I doubt that my own grade school teachers intended to teach patriotic lessons designed to turn their kids into raging liberals, but in understanding the history and meaning behind American symbols, they somehow allowed me to internalize the understanding that the phrase “more perfect” in the Constitution’s Preamble meant that America was, and needed to always be, a work in progress.  In many respects, my decision to finally become a teacher was part of long process where I, at last, understood that my love for my own country was birthed in a public school classroom by teachers who took the time to explain what it truly meant to be an American.  America’s great progress for me, then, was to try to replicate the same sort of patriotic instruction that I had received.

As an aside, however, it’s worth noting, even in passing, that the past several weeks of debate, involving possible American military involvement in the Syrian Civil War, certainly gives one the clear understanding of what such progress has come to mean.

Still, my goal was to put the background information about the POA out there for my kids, as unfettered and unbiased as I could, explaining the do’s and don’ts of respect for the process, and the expectations I had for them during the morning recital (i.e., hands over the proper side of the chest, hats off, etc…).

How they developed their American citizenship over the course of the upcoming school year will be entirely upon them.  But we did cover Jackie Robinson in class yesterday, and next week, we begin studying the Native Americans.  If nothing else, the latter subject has got to be understood as more than just the only misfire in Schoolhouse Rock‘s repertoire, “Elbow Room”.

For now, however, my students have engaged in their appropriate patriotic exercise this week.

I have no doubt, that there has to be a few of them, who, undoubtedly, feel like Shirley Temple Wong in Bette Bao Lord’s The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson (a book we’ll read later on this year…):

“I pledge a lesson to the frog of the United States of America, and to the wee puppet for witches’ hands. One Asian, in the vestibule, with little tea and just rice for all.”

Trust me, there are other ways it likely gets fractured as well.

We will be working on that.


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