Pledge of Allegiance

Rosa just learned the Pledge of Allegiance. Her whole class is eager to recite it every time they see the flag. Rosa was so proud to recite it to Adam and I this morning. And they follow it up in class with ‘I’m proud to be an American.’

Now when I was five, I remember learning the Pledge, not really being able to pronounce indivisible, or having any idea what that or most of the other words meant. So we had a discussion this morning on the way to school about what the words actually meant.

It was as much an enlightening experience for me in trying to distill a few hundred years of history into a few words on a five-year old level, as I think it was for her. I’ve noticed that trying to explain things to kids really makes you pare down your own bullshit. 

The synopsis we came up with was this: The flag is a picture that stands for every American: now, who lived long ago, and in the future, and it stands for ideas about what Americans are supposed to believe and how we are supposed to act. And when you ‘pledge allegiance’ you are agreeing to act a certain way, agreeing to be friends or ‘allies’ with other people in our country and agreeing to the laws we have. ‘The Republic for which it stands,’ is the government that we agree to speak for us. “One nation, under God, indivisible,” means that we might all be a little different and have different states or even different ethnicities, but we agree to follow one set of rules, and the rest of the worlds sees us as all together, like one class instead of just a bunch of separate kids.  “With liberty and justice for all” means that every person has the same rights as everyone else to live and think the way they want to think, as long as they don’t hurt anyone else or take away anyone else’s rights to do the same thing: what America is supposed to represent in the flag.

And then things got complicated. Because we talked about the origin of the flag, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, etc, and how the flag and the ideas of America evolved over time. And of course, when we talked about the settlers and the European nations, my daughter, who is a member of the Ojibway nation, said, “What about the Indians? Where were the Indians?”

 Oh Boy. When I was a kid, not only did I not have any idea what the Pledge of Allegiance really meant, but our history classes side-stepped, the ‘Oh Boy!’ by simply avoiding it altogether. There was maybe one line in class about Indians providing food for the settlers once, and that was it. No one spoke about reservations, no one spoke about smallpox, about Leonard Peltier, despite the fact that his encounter with the FBI had happened less than fifty years previously. And the only real mention of Indian hostility that possessed any emotion was reserved for tacky movies that used scalping as a plot device for horror. This is the America I grew up in. It is not the America that Rosa is growing up in, nor should it be.

My husband, Adam, who is my age, and also a member of the Ojibway nation, grew up in the same climate as I. He was in junior high before he even learned he was Indian, and he learned by coming home and regaling his full-blood Ojibway mother with a collection of 50s jingoistic nonsense he had learned in class about Indian aggression.

Her first response, I imagine was a bit more dramatic than, “Oh Boy.” It continued with, “Honey, you and your sister sit down now. We need to talk.”

I am not Indian. I am Hebrew. We have our own complicated history that I won’t go into now. But the conversation that Adam got when he was in junior high, and the conversation I never got at all, suddenly needed to happen in a fifteen minute drive to school, at least the beginning of that conversation.

We talked about the British Crown, and about the colonists, and about why they were fighting. And then we talked about laws and interpretation, and how sometimes grown ups don’t always do what they say they are going to do because they don’t include everyone. The settlers wanted freedom to live a certain way, and felt that the British government was wrong for trying to make them live their way. But when they came here, they didn’t count the Indians who were already here. So even though they wanted freedom, they weren’t ready to expand that idea to everyone, only to people who seemed like them.  That’s a simplification, but it is one that Rosa, who in kindergarten is readily grasping the ‘Treat other people the way you want to be treated’, understands.

Now, I still want Rosa to be proud of America as her teachers are teaching them. So how do we reconcile our checkered past involving her own ancestors, to our noble ideas of nationhood? By not glorifying us as infallible, which was how America was presented to us as kids. This glorification served, in many cases, I think, only to jade us as we grew older and realized that we can do a great deal of wrong and call it right, like finding out that our parents aren’t perfect. So I explained that nations are made of people, and people, especially in groups, can make some bad decisions as well as good ones. And we had to evolve as a nation. We weren’t and aren’t always indivisible, and there wasn’t and still isn’t always justice for all, but the idea is that we are working on it. The important thing is that we keep talking, and keep trying. We screwed up as a nation, with the way the First Nations were treated. We have continued to screw up about various things. But the thing that makes us good is our ability to say, “I’m sorry, I screwed up,’ and try to make it right, in the same way that Rosa has to apologize when she misbehaves.

Some people think that all that might be a lot for a five-year old, but she seems to understand that grown ups fight about things, we don’t always make the best decisions, or treat each other the way we want her to treat people. But I think that it will give her a realistic view of the country around her as she matures, without the jadedness that comes from disappointment, and I think it will empower her to become a responsible and effective citizen, without unattainable idealism that could cripple her ability to make informed choices, on the one hand, or anger and lack of hope which can paralyze voters in their own way.

We were late to school.


One Response to “Pledge of Allegiance”

  1. Nicely done! I wish I’d found that stuff out as a kid. I had to figure it all out myself and did a pretty bad job of it along the way, accidentally insulting people.

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