Just like many other children during that period of adolescence, I was transitioning into my age of reason. I was beginning to understand the world I was living in a different way.
I had grown up learning the sacrifices of men in our family who had served for generations in the U.S. Military. I had also grown up hearing the tales of men in our family who had been lynched. It was the latter that caused a disruption to my developing psyche.
My teacher’s name was Mrs. Johnson and I had a secret crush on her. She was a brilliant woman whose manner was so disarming she could get us to do anything, or almost anything as I soon learned.
The night before this pivotal experience, I had an epiphany. All of my years in school I had been reciting the Pledge of Allegiance without ever thinking what it was saying. That night, for some reason, my 11-year-old brain was reflecting on the Pledge when the words “… with Liberty and Justice for all” jumped out at me.
I remember thinking to myself, “That’s not true, there is no Liberty and Justice for All!”
My limited life experiences were all the validation that I needed to know that the words were not true.
What needed to happen the next day in class became very clear to me. I didn’t tell anyone what I was planning on doing.
The next day at school, when all of the children stood for the morning routine of saying the Pledge, I remained in my seat. I wasn’t scared. In fact, I was filled with such a level of righteous indignation that no one could have deterred me “not even Mrs. Johnson.”
As my classmates said the Pledge, she kept staring in my direction, her hand patriotically resting over her heart.
When the students finished, Mrs. Johnson called me over to her desk. She asked me why I had not stood up to recite the Pledge. This was my moment to show her that my actions were purposeful. I explained to Mrs. Johnson that my pastor had taught me that a pledge is a solemn promise, an oath and should never be taken lightly. I further elaborated that the words, “… with Liberty and Justice for All” would have had me telling a lie. I didn’t feel as though everyone in our country received Liberty and Justice.
Mrs. Johnson pulled out a slip of paper, wrote something on it and told me I had to go to the office and see the principal.
I hadn’t been scared before, but I was now. The principal! Only the worst kids went to the principal’s office. I was in trouble and being in trouble was something my mother never tolerated from her children.
I had backed myself into a corner and there was no way out. I hadn’t thought through the potential consequences of my actions. My fear was heightened, not so much by having to go see the principal, as it was by wondering how my mother would react.
I don’t remember the principal’s name but I can still see his face turning red while reading Mrs. Johnson’s note. He unleashed a torrent of anger-laced statements and spoke about ungrateful youth, sacrifices others had made, and my ignorance. What stood out most was that he kept asking me if I understood and when I answered, as respectfully as I could, “Yes,” he was angered even further.
“Yes, what?” he yelled.
I knew what he wanted and it hurt me to give it to him, but I did.
“Yes… sir.” I replied.
He must have made me reply “Yes sir” about twenty times before he picked up the phone and called my mother at work.
More fear gripped me. Never, ever was my mother to receive a call at her job. This was an unforgivable sin on my part. I had done something that made them have to call my mother at work. I would probably be killed when I got home from school.
The principal told me that I would not be allowed to return to school until I apologized to both he and the class.
11 years old is a difficult age. The hormones, mix of emotions and lack of social equilibrium are the main ingredients of adolescence. I wasn’t sure of anything at this point except that the words of the Pledge were not true.
The school bus dropped me off across the bridge from out little apartment. That was the longest walk home I have ever taken.
I walked in the door knowing my mother was there waiting for me. I steeled myself for an epic spanking. There was no doubt in my mind that it was going to happen. I was about to feel the pain of my decisions in more than one way.
My heart was pounding as I rounded the corner of the entrance into the living room.
There she was, sitting in the lounge chair, but something was wrong. She wasn’t glaring at me in that way that she usually did when I was about to get spanked. She wasn’t biting her lower lip as was her custom whenever anger overtook her.
I was thrown off balance. I wasn’t sure what was going on.
In the most calm voice I had ever heard her speak she said, “Come sit down.” She motioned for me to come and sit on the chair next to her. At that moment, I was really scared!
She asked me what had happened. I couldn’t believe it! I was going to get a chance to tell my side of the story!
I launched into one of the most impromptu, persuasive speeches in the history of orators. I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. I pled my case using every fact my young mind could gather, familial anecdotes that I had heard from her and many of the elders in our family. I threw in my grandmother’s words for good measure to help sway her opinion.
I remember this like it was yesterday. She placed her index finger over my lips to quiet me. What came next was a pivotal moment in my maturation and growth as a man.
My mother began to explain the power of words and ideas. There wasn’t a bit of condescension in her voice as she spoke to me. She explained that we human beings are not perfect, in fact, far from it. She pulled me closer to her as she told me that we, human beings, are constantly struggling and striving to build something greater of ourselves.
I was shocked when she told me, “You have every right not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”
I was totally thrown off balance by her statement and struggling to make sense of what was happening.
After a long, purpose filled pause she continued, “The Pledge of Allegiance is not about what “we” are today, but what “you” will help make us tomorrow.”
My mother hugged me as she told me that, because I understood so much, it was my responsibility to fight and struggle to bring the beautiful ideals that we human beings strive for into reality.
I grew that day in my mother’s arms, listening to her words.
The next day I returned to that school on that military base in Fort Hood, Texas with a greater sense of purpose and pride. I apologized to Mrs. Johnson, my class and the Principal, but not for having sat down during the pledge. I apologized for not having understood my purpose and responsibility in bringing to fruition the ideals it expresses.
My mother died only a few years ago. I miss her tremendously but the lessons she taught me growing up still live on through me, the children I’ve raised and my grandchild.