November 2014

Line in the Sand: To Pledge or Not to Pledge?

Author: Barry Kaufman & Courtney Hampson | Photographer: Photography by Anne

Barry Kaufman
Let me stem off the inevitable tide of angry letters by making one fact very clear: I love this country. I have a deep respect for everyone who’s come before me to make this country what it is. The men and women who have laid their lives on the line, both in the military and on the police force; the public servants who have made it their mission to leave America better than they found it; even the occasional politician who managed to put the public interest before his own need to fornicate with strangers (such politicians are, of course, theoretical, but hope springs eternal). I have a deep abiding gratitude for the sacrifices each of them made to create the greatest country on earth. Except the politicians.

But here’s where I lose most of you: I think it’s time we stopped making such a big deal out of the Pledge of Allegiance. You’re already writing your angry letters, aren’t you? Ah jeez. Well, for those of you who stuck around to give me the benefit of the doubt, let me explain.

The Pledge of Allegiance is, in theory, a way for all of us to set aside our petty differences for just a few minutes and renew our fealty to this amazing country as brothers, sisters and countrymen. This is in theory. In practice, the Pledge of Allegiance is generally something kids groggily mumble their way through, occasionally substituting their own words (“I pledge Allegiance, to Queen Fragg, and her mighty state of hysteria,” to quote Calvin and Hobbes.) That’s if they’re even awake at that point in the day.
It’s essentially a two-minute warning for the school day. It marks the end of the time when you’re done passing notes, trading lunches and awkwardly flirting and the beginning of the time when you’re supposed to start paying attention to the teacher.

Here’s what it’s not: a sacred document. It’s been amended four times since its original version, was heavily promoted by a guy who just happened to sell flags to schools; and until 1942 it was recited while pointing your right hand toward the flag, palm down. You can probably guess why we all stopped doing that in 1942. (Incidentally, I apologize if I sound like that obnoxious college freshman who suddenly realized that history books aren’t super accurate, but this paragraph represents the sum total of the research I’ve ever devoted to this column, and I had to wedge it in somewhere).

To you letter writers out there, when’s the last time you actually recited the entire Pledge of Allegiance? Unless you’re a teacher or work in some form of government, I’m willing to bet it’s been a while. Some kid skips saying it once, and hysteria ensues. You’ve probably skipped saying it every day since graduation.

Look, I don’t know this kid. I kind of skimmed the news story about the whole pledge incident, and didn’t really catch his name. Because there are bigger problems out there than some high school kid choosing to do what high school kids do: test their boundaries and develop a healthy distrust of authority.
If you’re going to read some kid the riot act at a time in his life when he’s dabbling in the pre-college tradition of casual atheism and chronic smart-assedness, you’re kind of missing the intent of the pledge itself. Liberty and justice for all.

Liberty for religious folks to practice as they please. Liberty for those kids going through a rebellious phase to maybe sit this one out, even if we kind of think they’re being annoying. Liberty. For. All.
If you claim to love this country, love everyone in it. Pledge to the flag to uphold their liberty to live their life as they choose. In the end, there are probably much more worthy targets of your patriotic outrage. I of course refer here to politicians. And definitely not magazine columnists.

Courtney Hampson
I teach at a local college, and every semester I have one student. That one student who I know from day one is going to be my challenge. He’s likely not prepared for college (but it was either go to college or get a job). He’s certainly not prepared to follow classroom policies (because no one has ever held him accountable before). He doesn’t think his actions impact anyone else (because he is too immature to notice and still believes the world revolves around him). And this is when we clash.

In September, the Beaufort County School District superintendent received a letter from the American Humanist Association (a.k.a. AHA, or the organization I never heard of before September), on behalf of a Beaufort County ninth grader. That ninth grader contacted the AHA because he believed he was being denied his First Amendment right to opt out of standing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The student is an atheist and opposed to the pledge because of the “under God” language. The letter indicated that the teacher repeatedly instructed the student to stand for the pledge.

The student is actually correct. A 1943 U.S. Supreme Court ruling states that students have the First Amendment right to opt out of the Pledge of Allegiance. Lower federal courts since have “irrefutably recognized” that right, the center’s letter said. Those courts have also concluded that school officials are prohibited from compelling a student to stand during the pledge.

All due respect to the justice system, but I have a couple issues with this issue. First, is this kid really opposed to the “under God” language, or is he really opposed to school—and teachers, and others who try to make him better, and smarter, and ready for life? I think the latter.

I also have a hunch that this student is this teacher’s one student. That one student who he knew from day one was going to be his challenge. This teacher’s classroom is at the Right Choices Alternative School, where students are placed through the district disciplinary process. At this school, in addition to the core subjects, students also participate in behavior modification, conflict resolution, life skills, and character education programs on a daily basis. Students are also required to perform community service either on the program site or with outside agencies. Their parents are also required to attend four education seminars.

So this teacher is busting his rear every day, in an alternative school, not just trying to teach a core subject, but also battling behavior modification. This teacher is a saint. He is trying to maintain control of his classroom—has established classroom policies and guidelines to make sure every student can be successful and probably also goes out of his way to find an extra connection with his students, because he has a hunch that they need it.

So, when one student refuses to stand for the pledge, disrupts the classroom, and pushes the teacher to the edge, the teacher tells the student to stand. And then the law tells him that he can’t do that. Now, this student is in control and believes that the rules no longer apply to him. And in four years he walks into my college classroom, and I know from day-one that he is that one student. That one student who I know from day one is going to be my challenge.

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