By Venise Grossmann
While in homeroom at the beginning of the school year, I watched a well-groomed boy dressed in a shirt and tie say the Pledge of Allegiance. Thinking he captured a feeling of student patriotism, I picked up my camera and took his picture. I was pleased with the photograph and published it in the first issue of my school newspaper.
I have always loved the flag. Maybe it is because when I was young, my mother took all our most meaningful photographs outside by the flag that was hanging in front of our house. I now own a condominium, and the association does not allow me to hang a full-sized flag so I have a smaller flag sticking out of each of the three potted petunias on my patio and three flags in the garden in front of my house. One of my best friends' birthday was last week, and knowing he did not have one, I bought him a flag for the front of his house. Last summer, after spending nine weeks in Africa in some remote areas, I walked through customs in New York and saw the flag hanging prominently on the wall with the words "Welcome Home" written under it, and it made me cry.
Two weeks later, I began the school year. In fifteen years of teaching, a situation like this has never happened to me, and I certainly did not think that it would happen after September 11. After the homeroom bell rang, my entire freshman rose for the Pledge of Allegiance except for one student. Thinking I simply had to give a disapproving look, I was flabbergasted when the student said, "I am not going to stand."
Shocked, I again asked him to stand, and again he refused. Thinking my words simply did not register, I repeated my request and then, incensed, asked him why, and he said, "I don't have to and I am not going to stand." My reply was that he did not have to say the Pledge, but that he had to stand, but I was wrong.
After assigning the deviant a detention and then asking him to leave, I stormed into the disciplinarian's office demanding that she "throw the book" at him. Astonished, I learned that he had committed no crime, that under the First Amendment of the Constitution he has the "right" to choose not to stand, and that I did not even have the right to keep him for detention.
When I explained why I felt his actions were so unnerving, the disciplinarian agreed but said that she could not penalize him. Tearful, angry, and frustrated, I decided to take her only suggestion and call home.
Surely his mother, an adult, would feel the same as most students and all teachers and administrators do and offer the words I longed to hear: that she was sorry for his actions, would deal with the issue, and assure me that it would not happen again, but I received no such consolation.
She half-heartedly apologized for his behavior, but did not seem to find it appalling. She said that he was going through a rebellious stage and that she would talk to him. I told her that I wanted to keep him for a detention, and she said that she would support my decision. Okay... it was something, but it certainly was not the outrage I had hoped for, the outrage I felt. I shared my feelings with her. Although it is common for teenagers to be rebellious, this was not the way to express one's individualism. Actions such as these, I concluded, will cause others-both teachers and students--to look on him with disfavor.
I could not help but share this experience with other teachers, who all found his actions unspeakable. When they asked how the other students reacted, I explained that they did not encourage or condone his actions, and I thank God for that.
I later called my family to vent and said, "Can you believe something like this could happen especially after September 11th?" They too were sickened. It made me so angry that a fellow American could be so disrespectful and unthankful.
I know that he is only fifteen, but fifteen is old enough to know that we are an incredible country-to know that there are many other poverty-stricken and war-torn nations with starving children, disease, who lack political freedom.
The next day during the Pledge of Allegiance, he stood, but I do not believe he stood for the right reason-for pride and love of country. I asked him to stay after class and told him that I was happy that he choose to stand but hoped that he grew to understand why it was so important.
We cannot desecrate the memory of the young boys like him who gave their lives for this country. We are so blessed to live in a country that welcomes diversity and is accepting of other cultures, religions, and political views, a country that helps to fight injustices around the world, a country that addresses environmental issues, combats poverty, disease, and provides political asylum, a country that allows freedom of expression and is always generous.
I suggested that if he felt he must rebel, to do so in another manner: break the school dress code, not do his homework, dye his hair blue, but for God's sake, stand up, mean it, and better yet, say the words with pride: " I pledge Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America."