Kneeling during the anthem. Sitting during the pledge.
We’ve all heard about it. We’ve all typed about it on social media. We’ve all got an opinion.
I was around 15 when I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance.
I grew up in rural New York, near a Native reservation. I had a friend in my homeroom who was Native and she sat during this routine part of the day. One day I finally asked her about it and she had a lot to say.
From the numerous reasons, two resonated with me.
One, the United States did not recognize my friend and her people as citizens until 1924…150 years after we stole their land. On top of that, the US didn’t even grant Native Americans civil rights until 1968.
“I don’t say the pledge because by recognizing us as tribal nations the US recognizes that they took our lands and ravaged our people. I will not pledge allegiance to a government that decimated the cultures, government, and people that were here and has made little effort to make reparations for those things.”
Two, “The god in the pledge isn’t mine either.”
I found her arguments compelling. Maybe this was the beginning of my social justice path in life, maybe it just made sense to my teenage brain.
While I didn’t sit (I wasn’t quite ready to go against the norm just then), I did stop saying the pledge. If our government and pledge weren’t “fair” or representative of all people, than it seemed wrong to say it.
As I got older I became increasingly aware that our laws and freedoms aren’t applied equally, especially to migrants, women, Muslims, the LGTBQ community, and most of all- people of color.
I started speaking out, I started marching, I started to stand for something other than what made people “comfortable”.
Fast forward fifteen years. I am teaching English in an urban classroom. Not only am I teaching English, but I’m teaching English to students have newly arrived from other countries. I plan thoughtful lessons, make sure my students voices are heard, and serve as an advocate to those who need it. I don’t think about the pledge that much.
It took another Native, this time my student teacher, to remind me of why I stopped saying it in the first place.
After his first day he approached me. I had seen him sit, so I figured it was coming. After he told me his reasons for not participating in the pledge, he asked why I made my students stand.
“I ask them to stand, they don’t have to say it. I ask them to because it’s respectful, because it’s what you do, because, because, because…”
“More than half these kids aren’t from the US (meaning not from Puerto Rico).” he countered. “They are here because they are fleeing horrible circumstances in the countries they are from, not because they suddenly want to become American. Also, the Hindu’s aren’t really represented in the ‘under god’ part.”
“The god in the pledge isn’t mine either.”
I started considering all of the ways that my students were not treated equally in the United States.
My Puerto Rican students hold US passports, but are treated deplorably by the United States government. As I write this, the Federal government still has not sent aid to the over 3 million Americans without power, water and transportation after Hurricane Maria. People routinely think Puerto Rico isn’t part of the US, and tell them to “Go home to your own country if you don’t want to speak English.”, even though the United States- by design- does not have an official language.
All of my students are people of color.
As such they are more likely to be misidentified and mistreated by law enforcement, less likely to see themselves represented in literature, more than 3 times more likely to be labeled as behavior problem or classified as learning disabled compared to their white counterparts. Less likely to graduate, more likely to end up in prison. The list goes on and on.
The more we talked the more I realized that I was wrong. I wasn’t asking the kids to stand because I believed it was respectful or in service to anything. I was having them stand because it was a behavior management mechanism- it got 28, loud, boisterous, rough teenagers to be quiet and get ready for the day.
I sat then and have every day since. I give my students the option to stand, speak, stay seated, or stay silent.
To those who are outraged, I say this. You stand because you believe that the United States is the greatest country in the world. You stand because it “shows respect”.
I will stand with you when our ideals extend to all of our people. When I can look at my students and sincerely tell them that there is liberty and justice for all.
Until then, this teacher will spend the first 5 minutes of her day sitting in silence.