Each year on July 4th, I fondly remember Mr. Hansen's 5th grade class. Mr. Hansen taught Civics with what I would now call "passion." He would stand in front of the room unashamedly demonstrating his enthusiasm for the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights with gesticulations, arms thrashing about -- just to punctuate the magnitude of their importance.
As 5th graders, we thought this a bit exaggerated. We would cover our mouths to hold back the snickers. But, of all my grade school teachers, Mr. Hansen is the one I remember the most. Somehow, his extravagant love for those building blocks of democracy made a deep impression on us; we learned to love them too. Partly because we loved Mr. Hansen, and partly because he coaxed us through the learning process in a way that instilled in us how important it was to know them. He understood that his enthusiasm was contagious.
But most of all, I remember Mr. Hansen standing in front of the room leading us in the National Anthem. Learning the words and the melody was a requirement. Learning the 2nd stanza was extra credit. If you learned the 3rd and 4th, you were exempt from two pop quizzes and assured an "A" on both. I learned them all, but please don't ask me to sing them from the 2nd stanza on.
Mr. Hansen believed that every American should know "The Star-Spangled Banner." Singing it in unison unified us, a melodic statement about us all being Americans.
I wonder how Mr. Hansen would react today at any public event? His beloved National Anthem has become a performance piece. I cannot remember the last time I went to a professional baseball game where everyone in the stadium sang it together. I remember as a child standing with my hand over my heart and proudly belting out all the words. Plus, I always remembered Mr. Hansen's insistence on singing the notes as written. This meant that the first syllable of banner had only one note. The second syllable had two. Why sing it any other way?
At a recent baseball game I attended, no one around me sang. Most everyone stood with caps or hands over their hearts. A sign of reverence. A good thing to be sure. But, to my chagrin, the performer of the day wailed through the anthem, improvising, adding notes, runs. It felt more like the finals of American Idol than a pre-game tribute to our country. The singer was talented, to be sure. She hit an extra high note on "free" and the crowd hooted and cheered. Were they cheering for her high note? Or for freedom?
I struggle constantly with what patriotism means for me and for our country. If you have read, For God and Country, you know that in this fictional work I wage an on-going internal war between loyalty to God and loyalty to my country. I am not blind to the shortcomings of our nation. It is, nonetheless, my country!
I don't have children yet. However, I will remember Mr. Hansen when I do. When they start to understand what it means to live in a democracy, I will teach them what Mr. Hansen taught me.
Entertainment is one thing. Singing the anthem in our hearts is quite another.