Written in spring of 2005
I was in a discussion a few nights ago in which the subject of the Texas pledge came up. A teenager in the group was commenting on how loosely his school practiced the law requiring the Pledge of Allegiance, the Texas pledge, and the one minute of silence be observed each school day. The man sitting beside him was incredulous. “Pledge to the Texas flag? There’s a pledge to the Texas flag?” he asked. Dan had only just recently moved to Texas from Ohio.
The high school student and the two of us who were teachers recited the words for him:
“Honor the Texas flag, I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one and indivisible.”
I know the words, but I don’t say them with my students. The law says I have to make sure they recite the Texas pledge, but as an adult, I’m allowed a choice they do not have. I do say the pledge to the American flag, but I do it because I mean it—because words matter, and those words come from my heart. Saying the pledge can sometimes bring tears to my eyes, and the singing the national anthem almost always does. My throat catches at “rocket’s red glare” and by the time we get to “banner yet wave” my voice shakes.
Where does it come from, this depth of feeling? This intense emotional connection to those words? I mean, I know I have patriotism, but sometimes I’m surprised at myself for feeling such a sudden, strong shot of it in those moments.
I know I didn’t learn patriotism at school, though we lined up every morning in my California elementary school and said the Pledge of Allegiance. I didn’t learn it through my family, though I’ve always known both my grandfathers and my uncle served in the military. I guess it’s just that there were never any stories, no family lore associated with their service. They just didn’t talk about it.
I think I learned my love of country largely through teaching. I don’t think you can teach WWII without being awed by the enormity of the sacrifice, and the magnitude of the evil that we were combating. I learned it through teaching the Civil Rights Movement, women’s suffrage, the founding fathers…And I even learned it through studying issues like Watergate and Iran-Contra, feeling the outrage over events like that which threatened our American ideals rather than upheld them.
I’ve been thinking about my children’s feelings about America. My two older kids are so angry these days. Right now, my son is on the steering committee of a national group that has pledged itself to exposing what they feel are the abuses of the current government. His political views are to the left of mine—sometimes I’m surprised at just how far left—but I am proud of his passion and his commitment. I worry, though, that in his finding of all that is wrong with this country or its government, that he is not seeing so much of what is right. He doesn’t yet understand that while a Watergate or an Iran Contra is an example of government at its worst, that it is that same government that held the hearings, ordered the investigations, tried to make right what had been done wrong. I don’t know—maybe his patriotism will grow through his dissent—grow through his participation in the government of this country by actively questioning it.
I wish that he would have the experience I had last March. For the first time, I volunteered to be an election judge. After an evening of training, election day arrived and I reported to my rural precinct to get ready. Setting up the voting booths that day, the sky still dark at 6:00 a.m., our feet crunching on the gravel parking lot as we went back and forth carrying supplies from our cars, the road silent and still, my Republican counterpart, our clerk and I talked about how the whole thing starts here—in these little precincts all across America, with ordinary citizens setting their alarms for 5:30, unlocking the doors at 6:00, putting together the voting booths and readying the equipment, reviewing for the tenth time all the procedures to be followed, nervously going over that checklist once more…
And then, at ten minutes to seven, with a few rays of light barely peeking over the horizon, we raised our right hands—just the three of us in that little room—and administered to each other the oath of office—the oath of an election judge—promising to protect this process that would unfold over the next twelve hours in this three-booth country office off a two lane road at the edge of a county. It was humbling to say the words of that oath. We were so conscious of the big picture: this was how presidents were elected, how history was made, how the government of the most powerful nation on earth was perpetuated.
So yes, I love my country, and I love my adopted state. I’d rather live in Texas than anywhere else. But, pledge to the Texas flag? What allegiance could I pledge to Texas that would not already be part of my allegiance to the United States? Am I more Texan than American? And what about the students who have only been here a short while? The displaced Katrina student who would be here for just a short time? The law says that they have to pledge their allegiance to Texas, too. I wonder, does each state require its youth to pledge their allegiance to that state, and doesn’t that seem counter to the United States pledge of one nation, indivisible? Doesn’t it somehow lessen the solemnity and significance of the words we say in the pledge to the United States?
Words are important. We teach children the value of words, and so I won’t pledge allegiance to Texas until I understand inside of me what that means, and agree with it.