Reactions to a Memorial Day school assembly

11 Jun
Reactions to a Memorial Day school assembly

American patriotism still makes me cringe sometimes. Having come on strong there, I must say I also recognize the value and importance of loyalty, and sacrifice to protect one’s people. I have also have grown to appreciate some of the foundations for American patriotism, beyond mere attachment to one’s place of birth. The American Declaration of Independence is awesome. But I’m wary of too much patriotism, when early foundations of patriotism (the “we’re all American and isn’t that great” of early education) is not exchanged for a more balanced and objective appreciation of and loyalty to one’s country.

Part of it comes of being a Canadian and a Maritimer by birth. One rarely sees a  “Proud to be Canadian” bumper sticker anywhere, of the border, but Maritimers sometimes think of themselves as inhabiting a country of their own, a region apart from the rest of Canada. At one time we might have become part of the U.S., and even now, lying east of Quebec, which has always had national aspirations, we necessarily regard our bonds with the west as somewhat tenuous, since our proximity to and shared heritage with Quebec might make us part of that new country some day, with an English-speaking minority.

In Canada, we tend to be brought up to be more internationally minded than in the U.S.. Children pass on from Canadian history to world history early in their lives. I was never required to memorize the names of the prime ministers. We are a mosaic, valuing the countries of origin of our immigrants, not a melting pot like the U.S., which expects that everyone take on a new American identity. Canadians have been seen in a more positive light when traveling internationally (hence the occasional maple leaf on backpacks to ensure our welcome in hostels). We give more development aid per capita and per GNP, and less of it is tied to huge industrial developments that benefit us in the end.

I married an American who knew some world geography and promised we could live within the broadcast range of CBC radio. I’ve lived among Americans for nineteen years, and no longer feel much different, now that I’ve got a community here. But when I get to attend a patriotic American event, I do feel that sense of strangeness, and that I’d better be careful how I express myself.

This Memorial Day I was working as a substitute teacher in a high school. In the morning I enjoyed several hours of reading and discussing Shakespeare with students, then trotted off with them to the gym for a patriotic assembly. The cadet drills were very good. Young men and women in starched uniforms, in order, dance-like, marching, turning, pounding rifle barrels on the gym floor in booming unison, in obedience to the leader’s quiet commands. I admired their discipline, coordination, submission for the service of the group. Something valuable, in its place. In its place, along with other important aspects of individual self-government. There was also a reading of a letter from a Yankee soldier to his sweetheart, before he died, with a background of live music. Love of country over love of mate. Laudable, even by the mate, in the proper context.

But when the poem “My Name is Old Glory” was read, I could hardly help but roll my eyes. Not only was it (to my untrained but moderately literate ear) a bad poem, but it was full of patriotic claptrap. Now there was a topic for someone’s sociology, psychology, history class to discuss and debate at length. And, Lord, I hope someone used the opportunity. Or is it too risky to analyze and even critique a poem about the American flag? Might be considered dangerously unpatriotic. If I get audited next year, I’ll know. Maybe it’s just nitpicking, like criticizing a hymn sung in church for its bad theology (which I did in my Old Rugged Cross post).

(To read the entire Old Glory poem, click here.)

I had my own children read the poem and make observations, and their responses were very interesting.

My ten year old loves poetry, enjoys memorizing and reciting favorites, and reads them for fun. He’s currently into Shel Silverstein. He has spent only third grade in public school so far, and studied native Americans in social studies. At home we’re up to the Civil War in American history. Here’s our interview:

Q:Here, read this, and tell me your impressions, what you think it’s about.

A: (Impatiently) I don’t feel influenced by poems; I don’t think things, and understand meanings, like, oh wow, that’s so spiritual. I just think, that’s a good poem–it has a good rhyme.

He reads it through, quickly, won’t slow down when I ask him to.

Q: What do you think of the poem?

A: It’s not a good poem, no rhyme or rhythm, too much repetition. And it’s like bragging–it’s all bragging.

Q: Why would someone write a bragging poem?

A: Because he thinks the flag is cool, and some people don’t.

Q: Do you think it’s a good one to read on Memorial Day?

A: Yeah.

Q: Even though you don’t like it?

A: Yeah.

My twelve year old is a straightforward person, not much of an abstract thinker either yet. She attended public school in fifth grade. She said the poem was meaningful, but we don’t know what the meaning is. She seemed shy or unsure about stating any opinions. Said the first stanzas reminded her of the stars for some reason. She couldn’t abstract the meaning in words. She liked the poem and thought it was a good one to read out on patriotic days.

My fifteen year old read and reacted to just about everything about the poem. She decided to take lines literally and rejected them as illogical. “It doesn’t fly, it sticks to a pole. It doesn’t stand for peace, honor, truth and justice; it stands for America, and America is not those things. It can’t bow–it’s just a piece of cloth. It should not be worshiped. No one is afraid of a flag. It wasn’t at every battle. People don’t rip up the flag for bandages.” She agreed with some lines. “True, Americans are arrogant.” Her closing statement: “I think flags are overrated. They symbolize America, but American isn’t the best country in the world. And it’s not a very good poem, because nothing rhymes.” As an after thought, she added, “You and Dad ruined me for life, so I’m not patriotic at all.” Oops.

My seventeen year old read the poem without comment. He knew, I am sure, why I was asking for his opinions, and was reluctant to give his own opinion, because he’s been working on being open-minded and less judgmental, as he develops his personal views about various things. He was objective: “It’s a song of praise for the American flag.” Was it a good poem in terms of form, in terms of meaning? “No.” Why not? “It’s inspirational for those who appreciate that stuff. Noble, nice, it helps the U.S. to feel proud of itself. But I don’t care about that. It’s not really into it.” He felt it was a good poem to read on Memorial Day. For all ages? Maybe not in high school. It was “a little much–I’d tone it down for high school, or maybe read a poem that focused more on the people instead of the flag.”

I think we ought to be careful, when children are young, to expose them to great poetry, and great ideas. If we expect them to say the pledge of allegiance, let them learn first what it means, to the best of their ability at each age. Perhaps we should instill in them, rather than a fierce love of the United States, a strong appreciation of its best principles and practices–freedom, equality, justice, loyalty, democracy, dissent, balance of power, universal education, environmental protection, and so on. If they are expected to salute the flag, let them associate it with these principles as worked out in America. Then as they learn their American history, they can measure historical events and people against these principles.

As young Americans study world history (more, please!), they can learn the roots of these principles and varieties of interpretation around the world and in different cultures. Were these principles around long ago, even more than 250 years ago? As they consider the acts of the American military and individual soldiers around the world and throughout history, they can be asked, who are the heroes and heroines of the wars–everyone who fought and died, or only some? Are there some war deaths that are not triumphant, but only tragic? Who are the war villains–are they only on the enemy side? Are there some reasons for joining the military besides the desire to serve one’s country and its highest principles? What are valid reasons to refuse to join or to fight?


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