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"Stand Up! It's the Law!"

An elementary teacher asks her students what the Pledge of Allegiance means to them, and strives to protect the rights of those who choose to sit out The Pledge.

By Kate Lyman

My seven-year-old grandson is the only one who remains seated while his classmates recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Ever since he could talk, Caetano has been proud of his Brazilian heritage. When people would stumble over the pronunciation of his name, he'd say, "It's Caetano, Cae-ta-no. After a famous Brazilian singer."

Sitting out the Pledge was a difficult decision for Caetano, one he lost sleep over. Despite peer pressure ("You have to stand up. It's the law!" other children told him) he has stuck with his decision.

But what of other children who - whether for family, religious or political beliefs - do not equate being a good citizen with saying the Pledge? Will they also be allowed to stand by their beliefs?

Under a new Wisconsin law, all public schools are to offer the Pledge or the national anthem every day. Although students are not to be "compelled" to do so, reality is far more complicated.

In my school, on Friday, Sept. 28, teachers were told to send a note home about the new state law. The daily routine was to begin the following Monday.

That Monday, a fourth-grader recited the Pledge over the school intercom. I watched the reactions of my students, who are in a combined second- and third-grade classroom. About half my students mumbled some of the words. Several had their hands on their hearts. Two Hmong girls merely smiled. One boy, Jeremy, was sitting cross-legged, head down, with the hood of his sweatshirt over his face. Ceci was the only one standing up. She was also saluting and after the pledge was over, she broke into a vibrato rendition of "God Bless America."

WHAT DOES THE PLEDGE MEAN?

Watching my students, I wondered what the Pledge meant to them. Did they understand the words (even the fourth-grader had said, "one nation, invisible")? Could they understand why some might choose not to say the Pledge? How could I protect the rights of those who don't want to take part, while at the same time not let my beliefs interfere with students who want to participate?

I decided to approach these questions by holding a class discussion. I first asked my students what they thought the Pledge meant. Most echoed the thoughts of adults. They said it was a way to remember the people who had died in the Sept. 11 attack. They said it was about "respecting other people, respecting the world, world peace, and not fighting." It was clear that the meaning they interpreted had little to do with the actual words.

I decided to move on to the next part of my lesson plan: defining the words used in the Pledge.

Ceci said that "Pledge" means "that I stand up for the flag" and "for the Army." She added that it means to "be proud of yourself." Jeremy said it meant "you gave loyalty to the flag."

Ceci, meanwhile, defined "liberty" as, "All the people in the world are very special and should get the same things and be treated the same." Justice was similarly defined as, "We're going to give liberty to everyone in the whole entire world."

None of the students understood the word "indivisible." They thought they were supposed to say "invisible," or "invincible." I tried to clear up the confusion, but I couldn't shake the feeling that overall, my students had little idea of what they were saying when they recited the Pledge.

Then I asked the class why they thought some people might choose to not participate in the Pledge. The answers that followed were insightful, I thought, for seven- and eight-year-olds. Some of their comments:

"They might not like the U.S." said Keema.

"They don't think it's true that one nation is under God," offered Jeremy. "There's more nations under God."

"Maybe they don't believe in God," said Tyesha.

"They might be from a different country," suggested Kelly, "And be forced to move here."

"Or maybe the countries they're from don't do this. They're not used to it," added Emily.

I asked if people might disagree with the "liberty and justice for all" part.

"It's not true that people are treated the same," Ceci said.

"It's not true that we have justice for all," Jeremy noted. "How can we say that when we're bombing right now? The people in Afghanistan aren't getting liberty or justice. They're just getting bombed!"

"Now, my friend, Stephen, across the hall, he don't believe in saying it. He says it's white people's crap," Ceci said. "Now I'm not saying I agree or nothing," she added quickly, "That's what he says. My family says the Pledge."

I asked the class to think about what Stephen might have meant, even if he used words deemed inappropriate in school. Ceci responded, "Some people can't afford the money. They say your family can't get a job."

"Some people don't want Black people to do what they want to do," Tamarra said. "They treated them like slaves. That's not equal when white people treat Black people different."

I told the students there would be a school board meeting that night to discuss different opinions about the Pledge (I teach in Madison where for a brief while the school board required only an instrumental version of the Star Spangled Banner; after public protest, it reverted to a policy that instructs each principal how to implement the state law through a daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance or the singing of the National Anthem.)

One of the more insightful comments came from Ashle, who said: "We should just take a minute of silence to think about that crash stuff."

Ceci reflected what many in the Madison community seemed to be thinking and said, "People who don't like it can go out of the room. They can go in the closet and shut the door."

Overall, I felt that our meeting was successful. Above all, students had been able to express their opinions about what the Pledge meant to them, and had analyzed why the Pledge might not mean the same thing to everyone.

Now, a full month after the daily Pledge was required, more children feel the peer pressure and join in. Jeremy, however, remains adamant in not saying the Pledge, and I have told him I support his right to do as he believes.

As I write, the sunlight streams through my classroom "flag," a stained-glass rainbow sign. In the hallway, students' peace posters decorate the lockers and doorways. I find such symbols of acceptance of diversity and world peace far more appealing than those of national pride. But these are strange times.

I feel for Jeremy and Caetano and all the other students who choose to not join in the Pledge. I hope the cheers and jeers of patriotic fervor will not silence their rights.

Kate Lyman teaches a combined second- and third-grade classroom in Madison, WI. The names of the students have been changed.

Winter 2001 / 2002