So I have this student, let’s call her Shirley, she is quiet and never raises her hand. . .
Its not like I went to some progressive high school back in the day – I was educated by strict Catholic Jesuits – but there are some things the students do that just don’t bother me in the way they do other teachers (see Rick and his Pen Island presentation). If they sneak in a quick snack, I usually do not say anything, unless it has the potential to leave cheesy fingerprints on desks and books. If a kid listens to his iPod while doing an independent assignment, the joy I get from the fact he is working, heavily outweighs the fact he is probably listening to some ridiculous artist who thinks dancing around in a bishop’s costume is edgy (I wasn’t alive during the early parts of the 1980s, but even I know ripping on the Catholic Church is so 8-track). The way I see it, if my students are learning and not engaging in some outrageous act of benevolence, than the job is getting done and a little dent is being put into the education crisis. There is one moment of everyday, however, where I am stricter than Mussolini when it came to running his trains on time. It occurs exactly fifteen minutes into the start of first period. As soon as the PA dings at 9:00 AM, every single one of my students, from Shaun to the girl with the black eye and, yes, the boy who likes to stand on his chair and scream, quietly stand, place their right hand over their heart and proudly say the Pledge of Allegiance. Even my students who speak little English, know to do this and do so without question.
All week Shirley has decided to protest – silently of course – and remain seated during that sacred minute in my classroom. Each day, I have promptly sent her out of my classroom and to an administrator for doing so. She never causes a scene. In her mind she does not have to. And every time I send her away, she is back within five minutes with a note from some higher up reading, “Sir, there is nothing we can do to make a student stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. It is not part The District’s policy to remove a student for refusing to do so. Please admit Shirley back to class.” Don’t even get me started on The District and their policies – a bunch of Union owned figure heads whose only purpose is to act as barnacles on society’s wheel of progress. They are those people who somehow get in front of you in line at Starbucks; at the last second nonetheless, literally appearing from the realms of annoyance, taking five minutes to decide upon which seasonal coffee they will be ordering, all the while you are running late for work. It’s coffee people. Order it and move on so the rest of us can continue to contribute, while your biggest problem of the day will be deciding at which temperature your Autumn blend will best taste.
Sorry . . . back to the matter at hand. It is now Friday morning. I spent last night forgoing happy hour to create an interactive lesson about Jefferson. One that teaches students – like Shirley – about the great man and his contributions far beyond what their state-standardized test would have me teach; a small, yet satisfying, act of rebellion against The District. Needless to say, I am in no mood for Shirley’s inevitable protest this morning or listening to The District’s reasons for trouncing on the Flag that many brave men and women have died for.
Right before the morning ding that alerts students to quietly stand and prepare for the sacred moment, I had an idea. An idea that soon blossomed into an action. “Young scholars, as part of a new initiative to foster the art of civic listening, I will be instituting an everyday grade for active listening during announcements,” I said with glee.
Before the kids could complain, the Pledge began, I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag . . . Shirley did not stand, looking down as she clung to her thrice-used notebook. One nation under God, for Liberty and Justice for all. And then the kid who reads the announcements that no one listens to came on. For the first time since the incident with the girl with black eye, I could hear him and immediately regretted my decision to institute a civic listening grade during announcements. Today the school is subjected to the enthralling moral tale of why not to write on the bathroom stalls. “Anything counts as vandalism,” he declared. I wonder if Rick had written Pen Island anywhere in the graffiti covered restrooms and if the janitors, who would have to paint over it, got the reference quicker than I did.
As the announcements ended, I swiftly waltzed over to Shirley and explained she would be receiving a zero for today’s civic listening assignment. In her signature meek voice and direct style she inquired, “Why?” “Why” I responded, “because that Flag hanging in the front of our classroom represents the sacrifices many unsung heroes made and continue to make so that we can be safe, so that we can enjoy something many in this world do not, simply by the virtue of our being. Freedom.” Shirley pondered this for a few seconds. I thought I got through to her. I was wrong. “Your freedom is not the same as mine, Sir,” she responded, still not raising her voice. “I will not stand for something that does not stand for me” continuing “it is my right, as a citizen, not to do so.”
Though I was impressed Shirley knew about a first amendment right I had not yet taught her, I was still frustrated with her disrespectful decision not to stand during The Pledge. “This girl has something many do not and she squanders it,” I thought to myself. “Fine,” I said, “you will receive a zero for today’s civic listening assignment (I just realized how un-cool that must have sounded) and a zero for everyday you decide not to stand.” She simply looked at me through her glasses – I never realized it before, but a crack had formed on the right lens.
As the day’s end bell rang, I quickly went to my computer to enter grades for the day. When I got to Shirley’s name, I entered a perfect ten out of ten for her weekly Friday quiz and then proceeded to her civic listening grade. As my pointer finger rested in the upper right hand corner of my laptop, fully ready to strike zero, I paused, paralyzed by the mental picture of the crack in Shirley’s glasses. Removing my eager finger, I sat in awkward silence for about five minutes. I was truly having a moment because it was Friday and the forty-eight hours where I could pretend I was in college again had already begun.
“What did Shirley mean about my Freedom being different from her Freedom,” I thought. “How could the Flag not stand for her?” Liberty and Justice for all . . .
Looking at the grade book, I could not do it. I could not put a zero in for her grade. “Surely she had a reason for not standing,” I thought, the mental battle of conscience waging inside me. Not knowing what to do, I looked at the flag which hung in the front of my room, at least ten sizes that of any classroom I had even been in. Sitting in my empty classroom and surrounded by eerie silence, I thought back to the flag which hung in my first period class history, while I attended high school. The Jesuit priest must have had it since the 1960s. It was fringed and tinged, its pole being covered in a small film of dust. The precious symbol must have not been moved for some forty years, since the Jesuit first inhabited the classroom.
No one would have ever dared not to stand and face his flag during The Pledge. The consequences would have been dire, as it always was with the Jesuits, even for the smallest of infractions. Most discipline ended by being sent to the “Justice Under God” room for detention. We called it the JUG room. It was where I met almost of my high school buddies.
Yet, for as strict as the Jesuits were, I was always free in their classrooms. There were a plethora of stringent rules but I had freedom of thought, freedom of choice, the freedom to go home at night and eat a well-cooked meal, sleep in a warm bed and take a hot shower the next morning. Most of all, the Jesuits offered me freedom of mobility. I was given opportunity beyond measure. As graduation neared, the question surrounding college was not would I go, it was how high of a rank could I go to.
Thinking about my high school experience, I realized what Shirley meant by differing degrees of freedom. She saw freedom as a spectrum, with me on the high-end and her on the low-end. An American, Shirley was “free” but how free was she. How often was she able to have freedom of thought and choice? How often did Shirley go home to a well-cooked meal, warm bed and a hot shower to wake up to? Judging by the cracked right lens in her glasses and the thrice-used notebook she often clung too when making a point, it is logical to assume not often, if ever. Most importantly, did Shirley have the same freedom of mobility, the chance to better herself, as I did at her age?
I chose to work in the community and school I am in now. I fully accepted spending my weekdays in this Purgatory. Shirley did not. And unlike Shirley, I have the Dante-like ability to leave this Purgatory at anytime and venture back into paradise. She may very well not have that option, being left behind, the boulders of an unfair society weighing down on her back, preventing social mobility.
Before I left for my now forty-seven hours of pretending I still lived in a fraternity house, I entered a 5 for Shirley’s civic listening grade. I realized that, as an educator, it was not my job to make Shirley stand for the Flag. Rather, I had to do what all those before me failed to do – make Shirley want to stand for the Flag.