Saturday, January 12, 2013

American Patriotism

Here's a link to the article about the Lexington, South Carolina high school teacher who was placed on administrative leave for stomping on the American flag while teaching his students about the power we give to symbols.  The community is up-in-arms and the district spokesperson called the teacher's actions "unprofessional and inconsistent with professional standards."  Since Lexington is close to Fort Jackson, there are questions about the wisdom of employing a teacher in a military community who is so obviously unpatriotic (Of course he's unpatriotic and a hater of all-things-American, who else would STOMP on the American flag?  #sarcasm).

Yet, one of his former students said, "No, I do not think this teacher's actions were unpatriotic. I had this teacher for this class in the past and he taught the same lesson. His point was to show that a symbol does not have any value outside of what it represents, rather the concept is what matters. He is actually quite patriotic and wanted students to value an ideal rather than an object[...]"

Upon reading this article (and after posting it to my facebook wall with some smart ass wisecrack), I was immediately brought back to General Myer Elementary School in Ft. Huachuca, Arizona.  One of the highlights of my year back in those days was the annual Book Fair.  At Myer, they set it up in the cafeteria and laid the books out on the lunch tables. (This part always bothered me.  How could they set all of those brand new, crisp, wonderful-smelling books on tables that just hours earlier hosted culinary atrocities like spaghetti made with a sauce reminiscent of ketchup, foul stewed tomatoes, and carboard-tasting--sometimes expired--milk?  Yech....)

Despite my distaste for this particular location (the cafeteria was also laden with the stench of gym classes filled with 4th & 5th graders tottering on the brink of puberty), I still loved the Book Fair.  In fact, if my parents would have let me, I would have endured the pain of going back to the school cafeteria every night that week just to peruse the endless possibilities.  In my fifth grade year, my mom finally let me wander the tables by myself.  I was so excited to get away from the agonizing monotony of looking at the books for kids my sister's age for hours while she made up her mind that I practically ran to the teenage area.   That year I got plenty of time to look at every book.  And it was that year, when I came across The Cat Ate My Gymsuit.

When I first picked this book up and read the first few lines of the  back cover, I quickly put it back down again.  The protagonist, Marcy, "despairs of ever being thin."  I was in the fifth grade and I wasn't quite sure what "despair" meant.  And because there was NO way I wanted to read yet another book centered around a narrator who is trying to gain weight---there were plenty of those around back in the 70s---when I was really wishing that I could suffer from that problem myself.  I wasn't chubby (yet), but I could feel myself moving in that direction and I certainly couldn't relate to all of those characters who actually wanted to get bigger.  So I moved onto another table.  And then it hit me:  the girl on the front of the book didn't look skinny and it said that she "despaired of ever being thin."  Maybe that meant the opposite.

5th Grade Christmas Morning--Caught between Childhood and Adolescence
So I went back. This time I  read the book description fully, and then promptly added it to my stack of "must-buys."  The basic premise:  a young, overweight girl struggling with the pressures of being a buffoon in gym class (as well as a pariah in the general junior high population) finds acceptance in an English class taught by an unorthodox teacher.  I don't remember what other books I got that night, but I do remember immediately rushing over to the little kid's area and showing it to my mom.  I don't think she seemed very interested in my amazing acquisition--she was trying to get my sister to find something (anything!) she might like to read so she distractedly murmured something like "mmm...that sounds good."

And it was good.  I had found a narrator with whom I could relate:  a non-athlete who felt good about her prowess in English class.  It sounded just like me!  I tore through that book.  But it wasn't just a story about Marcy's intellectual and emotional transformation under the tutelage of a provocative teacher; it was also about the teacher, herself, who ends up getting fired for her refusal to pledge allegiance to the flag.  When Ms. Finney takes the termination to court, the kids--especially the misfits like Marcy-- rally around her and speak on her behalf.  They understand that she's not unpatriotic or attempting to corrupt them.  After months in her classroom, they "get" her  and they understand that the act of saying, or not saying the pledge as the case may be, does not define her as a person.

Yet, many of the parents are ready to burn Ms. Finney at the proverbial stake.  They see her behavior as a sign of  liberal non-conformity that will lead their precious children down the path of anarchy into a hellish bastion of dope-smoking and flag-burning, a place where there is no chance of turning into successful, functional adults.  Of course, these parents were being ridiculous because Ms. Finney did a lot more good than bad.  She wins her court fight, but she leaves the school anyway because she feels that she cannot truly be successful in a community where there is so much negative perception.  In the end, Marcy and her peers get a very valuable lesson about the consequences of making prejudicial decisions without the benefit of insightful thought.

It was also a valuable lesson for me.  I have to admit that as a 10-year old daughter of a Marine, one who grew up on military bases and knew the words to the Marine Corps hymn before the age of 5,  I was initially appalled at Ms. Finney's refusal to say the pledge.  But, like the characters in the book, I realized that one action cannot be valued as the complete truth.  We cannot make judgements about a person's character or worth based on single actions---particularly when those actions are symbolic.

For more than three years of my childhood, I saw this statue every time we drove through the gates of Quantico, Virginia.  I know what that statue symbolizes and I know how it makes me feel when I look at it.  Both of my grandfathers served in WWII, my father spent 20 years in the Corps, and I served five years in the Army.  I believe in this country and I believe in what the flag represents.  But it's just that---a representation.  And the moment we stop realizing that we have to look deeper and further at what we see, what appears to be truth, we fail the men in this statue who made the sacrifices to raise the flag over Iwo Jima.

Those Marines, along with all American soldiers, fought for all of us to be free thinkers--for America to be a place where differences are not only tolerated, but valued, a place where individuality is honored.  Here, unlike in Hitler's Germany, we don't have to be a specific race, have a specific hair or eye color, or brand symbols to show our allegiance to a political party (no matter how much we abhor it.)  In America, we are smarter than that.  We know that wearing a star to show our Jewishness, or sporting a military high and tight, doesn't say anything about how we feel inside or who we are as human beings.

There are many people all over this country who salute the flag, who sing the national anthem at the top of their lungs, and enthusiastically put their hands over their hearts during the pledge that act selfishly in every other aspect of their lives.  They cut people off in traffic, they say bad things about neighbors they don't even know, they hoard items during Black Friday Sales less no one else get their "goodies." They act like their rights come first because they don't truly believe in community.   Are these people bigger patriots than the fictional Ms. Finney because they say the pledge?  Are these people bigger patriots than Scott Compton just because they would never dream of desecrating the American flag?  Are these people bigger patriots than someone who chooses to devote his/her life to teaching youngsters how to think for themselves so that our country continues to flourish in the 21st century?  I don't think so.

I learned that lesson way back in fifth grade when I realized that it didn't matter that the book fair was held in the nasty, smelly cafeteria/gym.  I learned way back then, that just because something looks (or smells) bad, doesn't mean it doesn't have value.  If I had stayed away, I would have missed out on so many treasures.

 I think it's time we do the same thing with Scott Compton's teaching tool.  We all need to go beyond our initial revulsion at the action and look further into his point---Stomping on a symbol does not hurt anyone.  True patriotism cannot be found in the flag itself.  It is found in what we do every day--what actions as individuals, as communities, and as a country we take to ensure that the totalitarianism and absolutism that forced our forefathers from Europe in the 1600s and caused the Holocaust never happens again.  True American patriotism is making sure that our country remains the home of the brave and the land of the free.

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