Recent events involving the Pledge of Allegiance has renewed interest in a story I wrote not long ago called "A Perspective on the Pledge."
I have been thinking about expanding that story a little to cover some more ground. Recent interest in the story has inspired me to go ahead with that project.
Below, you will find the expanded version of my story "A Perspective on the Pledge."
A Perspective on the Pledge
Shelby Johnson had to admit that she was more than a little nervous as she walked into her first class. She was also a little late. Principal Hadley had kept her a little too long as he gave her a pep talk before she started her first assignment.
One advantage that she saw from this is that the class bell had already rung by the time she reached the classroom. All of the students were inside the room and most had selected a seat. Some were still standing as she entered, but they sat down while she dropped her books on her desk.
She wrote her name on the board, turned to the class, and took a deep breath before saying, “All stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.” She had been told that this ritual was useful in getting the kids’ minds focused on the fact that they were now in school and that the class had started, like the announcement that "all stand" before a judge entered the courtroom.
She paused when she noticed that one boy, near the back of the room, remained slouched down in his chair.
“Excuse me,” Shelby said, looking at the student. She stepped up between the rows to get a little bit closer and to make it clear who she was talking to. “Excuse me. What is your name?”
“Shawn,” the student answered. He scarcely looked up, but remained focused on the pen that he was fiddling with.
“Shawn. I would understand if you do not want to say the Pledge of Allegiance. However, I would like it if you would at least stand while the rest of the class said it, just to show a little respect to the flag.”
The boy sat silently for a second, then shook his head and said, “I don’t think I can do that, ma’am.”
Shelby got a sudden knot in her stomach. The rest of the students were standing and ready to start. She knew that they were all evaluating their new teacher, wondering what they were in for. She had heard stories of classes that would take a young and inexperienced teacher, chew them up, and spit them out again.
She asked Shawn, “Why not?”
Shawn kept his eyes focused on his pen, and slumped in his chair as if he was about to slide underneath his desk. When he spoke, his voice was soft, making it hard for her to hear him. "Ms. Johnson, the words 'with liberty and justice for all' were put into the Pledge in order to make us hate tyranny and injustice, right? I mean, we say the pledge because we are supposed to take a stand against tyranny and injustice. Those are bad things."
Shelby shrugged. This was, after all, supposed to be an Amerycan History class, and they would be talking about these things soon enough. "Yes. This country was founded on the idea that freedom is better than tyranny and justice is better than injustice."
Shawn glanced up, and made eye contact with her only for a second. She noted that he had nothing on his desk but his history book. Otherwise, she would have thought that he was reading something that somebody else had made him say. Shawn continued, "And the part about this country being indivisible. That was because of the Civil War. The guy who invented the Pledge wanted us to swear that we would uphold the Union and not promote rebellion. That's why he put the word 'indivisible' in the Pledge."
"Of course," said Shelby. "That's why you should show respect for the Flag. These are all good things that you should be proud of and that you should want to defend."
"Okay," said Shawn. "Then, 50 years ago, Congress added the word white to the Pledge of Allegiance. We are supposed to be one white nation, indivisible. When we pledge allegiance to one white nation, doesn't this mean that not being white is as bad as being in favor of rebellion or tyranny or injustice?"
"No," Shelby said with a sigh of relief. "No, not at all. Congress added that to reflect our heritage. It simply pays respect to the fact that all of our founding fathers were white, and that they clearly wanted to establish a white nation, and the fact that all of our past Presidents have been white."
"And all future Presidents should be white," Shawn added.
Shelby's smile vanished.
Shawn continued. "That's the real reason why Congress put the word white in the Pledge of Allegiance. It was not so much to show respect for our heritage, but to tell people not to elect a President who was not white. You can’t have a white nation unless all of your politicians are white."
"No," said Shelby hesitantly. "Anybody can grow up to be President. That is another one of the things that makes this country great. We'll be reading about that, too."
"Ms. Johnson. You're telling me that if I were going to run for President, nobody in this country is going to say, 'We are supposed to be one white nation, and that means we are supposed to be voting against anybody who isn't white, just as we are supposed to be voting against any president who supports secession from the union, tyranny, or injustice. Do you mean to tell me that Congress did not add the word white to the Pledge of Allegiance fifty years ago as a way of putting anybody who was not white at a political disadvantage?"
"Now, Shawn, you obviously know that you don't have to say the Pledge if you don't want to. I'm not asking you to say it. I'm just asking you to stand to show some respect for the good things that this country stands for. A lot of people died to buy you the freedoms you enjoy. Don't you think you owe them a little bit of gratitude?"
The boy bit his lip, and Shelby knew that she had struck a nerve with him. Still, he was not ready to give in. "Do you think that just because I don't have to say that this is one white nation that this means that the pledge is not racist?"
"Of course it isn't," Shelby said. "This is a free country. You should show your respect for all the good things this country stands for. You should be proud of those things and show some measure of gratitude to all of those soldiers and citizens that made this a free country."
Shawn looked up again, this time a little longer. "Ms. Johnson, if somebody was about to lead a room full of people in calling you . . . I'm sorry to say this, ma'am but I am just trying to illustrate a point here . . . if he was about to lead a whole room of your fellow teachers in calling you a cheep whore, and somebody said that you should stand and show your respect for what he was doing, would you?"
A couple of the other children snickered and Shelby felt her face grow hot.
"Shawn," she said. He continued to look at his desk. "Shawn! Look at me while I am talking to you."
Shawn showed no signs of moving for a few seconds. Then he let out a long sigh. He put his pen down and sat up straight in his desk. Folding his hands in front of him, he turned toward her and held her gaze. He did not flinch or look away. That did not help, Shelby thought to herself.
One of the other students, sitting on the opposite side of the room, shouted, "You liberals will not be happy until you have removed every sign of the white race from the public square."
Shawn shrugged and answered softly, "I am not saying that white people should be banned from the public square. I want the public square to be neutral on the issue of who is white and who is not. I do not see a problem with that."
"It's a problem if you're white!"
"That's enough!" Shelby shouted. "I have not given anybody else permission to talk!"
Just then, one of the other students – a white girl -- sat down. Shelby turned to her and said, "Jenny, I did not give anybody permission to sit down, either."
The girl remained seated. "It makes sense, Ms. Johnson. The Pledge states that you have to be white to lead this country, and that's not fair."
"Jenny, what do you want me to tell your parents when they ask me about how things are going at school?"
Jenny looked over at Shawn, then back at Shelby. "Tell them that I stood up for a friend. They'll understand. And if they don't; well, it's no big deal to do the right think when it's easy. A person really only shows her character by doing the right thing when it is hard. It's wrong, Ms. Johnson, to say that we have to be a white nation."
Shelby took a step back.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Johnson," Shawn said. "I know that this does not make your job any easier. I promise that I'm not here to cause any trouble. However, don't ask me to stand and show any respect for the idea that this has to be one white nation. I just can't do that. To be honest, I don't think you should be doing that either, but I will leave that up to you. Honest, Ms. Johnson, I’ll just sit here quietly until you’re done."
"Alright," said Shelby. "I'll discuss this with Principle Hadley and I'll let him decide. In the mean time, let's say the Pledge of Allegiance."
While most of the students put their hands on their hearts, two other students sat down. One was white, and the other was not.
The rest of the class followed the teacher's lead.
When they got to the middle of the Pledge, most of the students shouted, "…one WHITE nation…"
Shawn had been ready for it, and did not flinch. They were doing just what the all-white members of the Senate had done a couple of years earlier when a challenge to the Pledge made its way through the courts.
However, the outburst caught Shelby by surprise. She stopped and turned at the students who had shouted the word, and caught them smiling in self-admiration. After they finished, they took their seats, whispering among themselves and looking back at Shawn. Shelby reached into her routine for something comforting. She spoke hesitantly to the class. "Okay, let's start with introductions." Throughout the day, Shawn worried about whether he had done the right thing, and about what the costs might be. He had made some enemies in the school – students who called out taunts and insults down the hall between classes. Others whispered encouragement, though they tended to speak only when nobody else was listening.
During his study hall, the teacher hand handed him a note from Ms. Johnson asking him to meet her in her classroom at the end of the day. By the time the school day ended, the note was so badly worn that it felt more like cloth than paper, and was stained from the sweat from his palms.
Whatever Ms. Johnson had in store for him made Shawn less nervous than what his mother would say. He knew his mother was going to hear about this, and she would not be happy. She didn’t like her kid causing trouble in a new school. She just wanted him to study, get good grades, graduate, and leave.
Shawn, however, had other plans. He entered Ms. Johnson’s classroom. She was alone at her desk. “Close the door,” she told him. After he did so, she told him to pull one of the classroom seats up to her desk.
“I talked with Principle Hadley,” she said.
Shawn braced himself for the results of that conversation. He had suffered a confrontation with Mr. Hadley earlier the day on a white-only youth club called the Youth Scouts recruiting on school property. The Youth Scouts openly declared that non-whites were morally inferior to whites and, consequently, were not fit to be role models for children. Yet, they demanded to be allowed to recruit members in government schools and to use donated government property for their rallies and meetings on the grounds that denying them access to school children was discriminatory. Hadley, as it turned out, was a fan of the Youth Scouts.
“Principle Hadley said that we are required to offer the Pledge of Allegiance and, of course, we have to maintain order in the classroom. Since, as a non-white student, you are not required to pledge allegiance to one white nation, he said he could not see what your problem was. Just don’t say the pledge if you don’t like what it says.”
“I told you earlier, Ms. Johnson. The problem is that you are telling your students that they should pledge allegiance to one white nation, as if a non-white nation is not worthy of allegiance.”
“I understand your position, too, Shawn. Please realize, however, that this is not an exercise in racism. This is an exercise in patriotism. The school is perfectly within its right to encourage its students to be patriotic.” “But why are you telling them that being patriotic means you have to be white? Why are you telling them that a patriot has to support a white nation, and those who do not support a white nation means you are not patriotic. Ms. Johnson, that’s an insult to every non-white who ever served this country – including my dad, who died in the war.”
Shelby’s eyes widened and her expression grew suddenly soft. “Really? I’m so sorry, Shawn.”
“He died when his helicopter got shot down near Kabul. He was black. He certainly did not die because for the sake of one white nation. Can’t a person like my dad who did not believe in one white nation be a patriot?”
“I suppose he could.”
“Then why are you telling your students that he can’t be? Why are you telling them that to be a patriot they have to favor one white nation, and why are you telling those who do favor one white nation that they can’t be patriots?”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“That’s exactly what you’re saying, Ms. Johnson. When you pledge allegiance to one white nation and call it a patriotic exercise, you’re saying that a non-white nation is not patriotic. How can you sit there and deny that?”
“Look, I’m not going to debate you on this. I can understand where you’re coming from. I just think you’re wrong, that’s all. But, I understand. I can see how you can be upset. After all, you can’t help the fact that you’re not white. It’s not like you could . . .”
Shawn slammed his palm down on his desk top and stood up. He then saw that he had startled the teacher, so he apologized and returned to his chair. Forcing himself to calm down, he said, “That’s not the point, Ms. Johnson. What if I could change my race? What if gene therapy made it possible for me to choose to be just as white as you are? You’re still saying that if I choose to be black, then I choose not to be patriotic. You’re still saying that for me to be patriotic I have to choose a white nation above all others. If I could choose, why can’t I choose to be black and be patriotic?”
“This is going nowhere,” Shelby said, still visibly shaken. “If you want, then you can leave the room when we say the Pledge of Allegiance. You don’t have to participate. You don’t have to listen. You don’t even have to be present.”
“That’s very symbolic, Ms Johnson,” Shawn answered. “You would have me leave the room – perfect symbolism for all of your white friends who think all of us who are not white should leave the country. It’s perfect symbolism for those who want to divide the country between those who are white, and those who are not-white, and for saying that those who are white can stay, and those who are not white should leave.”
“Stay, then,” Shelby said tensely. “Stay in your desk and be quiet until we’re done, just like you did today.”
“That’s also good symbolism, Ms. Johnson,” Shawn answered. “After all, the true patriots – those who are willing to pledge allegiance to one white nation, should do all the talking. Those who aren’t white should sit down and shut up. That’s also a very important message for you to be teaching your students, Ms. Johnson.”
“Then what do you suggest, Shawn? Help me out, here. I’m running out of ideas.”
“Don’t say the Pledge, Ms Johnson. Tell your boss that it’s wrong to tell your students that a person has to be in favor of one white nation to be a patriot and that you will not do it.”
“I can’t do that. We have rules Shawn. We can’t go breaking the rules just because we want to.”
“Well, Ms. Johnson, I think one of your students said something real important today. Remember what Jenny said? Anybody can do the right thing when it is easy. You only see a person’s moral character when she is willing to do the right thing when it is hard. Besides, Ms. Johnson, if the government doesn’t have the right to force you to say the Pledge – say, if you were black, like me – then they certainly you must have the right to refuse to teach it to others.”
Shawn then stood slowly. “I promise, Ms. Johnson, I won’t do anything to disrupt the class. I know how hard your job is. I’m just not going to support the idea that if somebody isn’t white, then he can’t be patriotic – particularly not after what happened to my dad. I couldn’t do that, and you shouldn’t expect me to.”
“Fine,” said Shelby.
“Good night, Ms. Johnson.”
“Good night, Shawn.”
As he left, Shawn started to prepare himself for the next conversation he would have. He pictured his mother coming home from work and asking, “How was school today?” Then, his palms started sweating all over again.