Stand Up (or Sit Down) For What You Believe
It’s unbelievable to me that over twenty years ago I was preparing to complete my student teaching in the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation. My first class, a dynamic mix of fifth-graders, challenged me to quickly learn about differences in culture, race, gender and social class.
Among the approximately 100 fifth-graders I taught that year were two sweet sisters, fraternal twins with the most charming personalities. These sweet and generous girls were two of the friendliest students in the class.
I noticed the girls right away on my first day. As the class rose, reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance, these girls remained quietly seated and none of their peers so much as batted an eye. As I took note of their action, my own memories of elementary school were instantly triggered, and thoughts rushed in of my own classmate, Dan, whose family was practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Dan sat quietly during the Pledge of Allegiance and he left music class while we were practicing Christmas songs. He didn’t sing “Happy Birthday” or participate in classroom Valentine’s card exchanges. He explained it simply by telling us, “It’s against my religion;” the same reason I gave when abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent.
The twins, as most of their classmates referred to them, later verified that their family was practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses. As fifth graders they knew the routine: they politely removed themselves from situations that conflicted with their religious beliefs. Their mom provided me with a primer of background knowledge to help me understand. She was the first to volunteer and help create class celebrations that were inclusive for all.
They helped me understand the why behind what they did what did.
I had learned in my undergraduate courses school law: Indiana Code Title 20, section 0.5 states that the United States flag shall be displayed in each classroom of every school in a school corporation. The governing body of each school corporation shall provide a daily opportunity for students of the school corporation to voluntarily recite the Pledge of Allegiance in each classroom or on school grounds. A student is exempt from participation in the Pledge of Allegiance and may not be required to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance if the student chooses to not participate, or the student's parent chooses to have the student not participate.
Never once did it bother me that my students did not stand for the Pledge. They had every right to refuse to do so under law. It was much more important to me that they were kind and giving; that they were doing well academically and socially. They were good friends to their classmates. Their family did not judge me for my religious beliefs - what right would I have to judge theirs?
I no longer teach in the public schools, but I can’t help but wonder what happens if a child does not stand today? How would their peers react?
On the Fourth of July I will proudly celebrate this beautiful country. And I know that these girls, and the many students I have been blessed to know, will not be far from my thoughts. Because America has offered their family, just as it has mine, the freedom to practice their religion and love God as they have been taught.