This I Believe

Eva - Colorado Springs, Colorado
Entered on September 14, 2006

A Forced Promise Means Nothing

As a teacher in a public middle school, I begin every workday with a loyalty oath. The announcement comes over the intercom, and I stop instruction so we can all stand up and say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Before 9/11, few teachers chose to lead the Pledge every morning. When the school district first announced the new policy making it mandatory, a month after the attack, I was so angry I called my principal on Saturday morning to express my concerns.

But I say it. I leave out the “under God”, usually taking a discreet breath during that part of the recitation. By rejecting this phrase, added only in 1954 to combat “godless communism”, I register my small protest – they can force me to be patriotic, but they can’t force me to be religious, not under the Constitution.

I say the Pledge with a bitter taste in my mouth, even though my colleagues tell me, “hey, I had to say the Pledge every morning when I was a kid” as if their childhood experience was adequate rationale.

I say it and I make the kids stand up and say it too. I say it because I have to have a job, and teaching is what I love, and what I am qualified to get paid for. And I have a mortgage and car and child support payments and a frightening book and coffee habit.

Like the Colorado teacher who was disciplined for leaving the flags of foreign countries up too long, I need to put up with the requirements of my job. Unlike that social studies teacher, I don’t have the guts to buck the system. I toe the patriotic line.

So. Am I not a loyal American? Actually, I am very patriotic. I cry on the fourth of July and before ball games. I consider voting a sacrament. I stand at attention when the colors pass. I have a service star on my car bumper. So why do I mind having to recite those words? Because, if the purpose of the Pledge of Allegiance is to express patriotism, it should be my choice to say it.

I emigrated to America from Czechoslovakia as a twelve year old. When I was small, my parents had to walk in the May Day Parade in our town, Moravska Trebova, every year. I was too young to understand why it irked them so to march behind portraits of Communist bosses and Soviet flags. I understand that, thankfully, there is a world of difference between today’s America and Czechoslovakia in the nineteen-sixties. But that early experience made me very sensitive to any whiff of forced patriotism.

The pledge is either a meaningless sequence of words we teach our children to recite, in which case it is a waste of instructional time, or it’s a real promise to love one’s country. In which case it should NEVER be required. Otherwise, as far as I’m concerned, we’re just carrying the portraits in the May Day parade.