My grandson came home from his first experience in school this year and reported that at the start of class, they recited the "American prayer." My son and daughter-in-law were, at first, incredulous. Then livid.
My other son had dealt with this same dilemma a year or two earlier when his oldest child first started school. This was a shock all too familiar to my husband and me. While we smiled at our little man's astute assessment of the Pledge of Allegiance to be a "prayer," we wholly understood our children's outrage, applauding and backing them up with our indignation. We, too, had dealt with this same issue many years earlier when my sons first started school here in this country.
Like just about every school-age American kid, I grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance from kindergarten on, attending schools in Southern California. I never thought much about it, though. It's just what you did -- although, I didn't have a clue what I was saying. My husband, being French, never had such an experience.
I don't remember if we still recited it in junior high and high school. That was a long time ago. Then, on to college, followed by a life abroad for many years. By the time I came back to the states, I had my own school-age children. We enrolled them in our local school, and that first week, my husband and I were surprised and shocked when our two young boys came home relaying that the school day started with a recitation in front of the flag.
"What is the Pledge of Allegiance?" they asked. Oh my!
Wasn't that a vestige from the 1950s, I thought? Do they still do that in school here? It had been a long time since my school days, and this was my first experience (or skirmish, rather) with school in the states with children -- my children. My French husband was equally shocked. He had never heard of, nor participated in, such a ritual in his school days in France.
My oldest child had attended school in France and Brazil, and he was never obliged to participate in a similar exercise in class in those countries. We were adamantly opposed to this. We were opposed to forcing a child to repeat words that he/she could not yet understand. This was a teaching moment, and my husband and I seized it.
"You don't have to say the Pledge of Allegiance," we told them. "You have that right not to. The Pledge says that you promise loyalty to the flag, a symbol of this country, and the democratic principles it stands for, but at your ages," -- they were 8 and 11 years old -- "We don't think it's right to force that on you when you don't fully understand what you are saying."
If one day their hearts were to implore them to participate with everyone else, so be it. But at this stage, they were too young to understand what it all meant. This is how indoctrination begins. This is how the subtle influence of dogma, dare I say "brainwashing," wields its control. I was acutely reminded of the mindless ten "Our Fathers" and fifteen "Hail Marys" the Catholic priest would mandate that we recite as children for penance following confessional sessions when I attended Catholic school. (I am now estranged from all religion). Indeed, my grandson had seized the essence of what the Pledge is: a prayer. (Although, we are somewhat mystified as to how he could know what a prayer was, his family being non-religious.)
The Right to Say "No"
Nevertheless, out of respect for their classmates and teachers, and the solemnness of the morning ritual, we told them that they should stand with everyone, but under no circumstances were they obliged to put their hands over their hearts, or recite the words, no matter what anyone else may tell them or how they may be intimidated. They had the right not to recite.
"If anyone says anything to you, let us know and we will speak to them, and the school, about it."
As it turned out, my children were never again confronted with this quandary after that first year because the following year, and for the remainder of their education, they attended a French school here in the states, where the Pledge of Allegiance was not part of their program.
Consequently, our sons completely forgot about this American custom, as did we. Putting their own children in their local public schools was their first renewed experience with the American public school system in over 25 years.
Citizens of Civics
When I was in the 8th grade back in the 1960s, we were required to take a rather rigorous class on the Constitution. We had to memorize the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble of the Constitution and know the all the amendments inside and out. We had to thoroughly read, study and understand the entire document in this semester-long course, replete with regular exams, quizzes and essays. No student could pass into the 9th grade without passing this class, and a very intimidating final exam. Now THAT is something I wholeheartedly applaud. This experience deeply marked me, and being a child of the 60s, a time heavily shadowed by a long and loud public opposition to the Vietnam War, coupled with outrage over the Watergate scandal, we wielded our 8th grade constitutional proficiency and brought down a president who disregarded these principles and tried to circumvent the law.
Students should have civics lessons -- a mandatory class. They should learn the principles and philosophies of this government and their duties as citizens. Only then should they learn the Pledge of Allegiance. It would make more sense. There is a profound difference between indoctrination and civic instruction, and I venture to say that given the current state of civics and the political environment of this country, we are now witnessing the prevalence of indoctrination over civic knowledge. Mindless repetition of a mantra does not a patriot make.
Lest some forget, we are governed by a democracy and one of our most sacred tenets is our freedom of speech as guaranteed by the first amendment. Exercising a right not pledge to the allegiance of the flag is part of that right, and I would much prefer that my children and grandchildren acquire a desire to recite the Pledge on their own terms, based on their own life experiences, feelings, lessons, and interactions with this country.