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After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States ceased to be the backdrop to my life and instead became an ideal, a cause, a veritable force. The autumn parade in my town, which had previously been a ragtag band of candy-throwing Girl Scouts and antique car collectors, suddenly became the American Pride Parade, now featuring Uncle Sam on stilts and flag-bearing Knights of Columbus. People wore their political views on their sleeves — or, more accurately, their bumpers. The 2004 presidential elections only heightened the atmosphere of nationalism and strong political passions.
It was in this environment that I attended my sophomore year of high school, equally absorbed by the political and social changes my country was experiencing and by the literature of my seminar-style English class. Daily we discussed the ideas behind such works as Heart of Darkness and Les Misérables and experienced those sparkling moments of intellectual unity when their relevance to our lives and to society suddenly became clear. My enthusiasm for society’s great books led me to Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” and I was affected deeply by his notion that citizens are obliged to abstain from participating in institutions they view as corrupt.
For some time, I had viewed the Pledge of Allegiance as a questionable daily ritual, but I had felt powerless to do anything about it. However, “Civil Disobedience” is a call to action as well as a critical inquiry, and after deciding to act on any conclusions I developed, I pondered the issue and decided that encouraging students to salute a flag and take an oath of allegiance is unacceptable in an academic setting, which should be kept as ideologically neutral as possible. Furthermore, it runs contrary to the idea in education that students should think critically and develop their own opinions on issues, essential to the functioning of democracy. Although (or perhaps because) I have a healthy respect for the First Amendment rights that come with being an American, I felt that I could no longer in good conscience participate in the Pledge of Allegiance, whether by reciting or by standing up. Participation would not only be hypocritical, but insulting to my classmates who did so out of genuine sentiment.
The first time I stayed seated during the Pledge, I was prepared for the worst, and had even gone so far as to program the ACLU legal hotline into my cell phone. As I stared at my folded hands and tried to assume the facial expression of a noble dissenter rather than a traitor, I began to wonder if nonparticipation could change anything, whether it would be worth the social cost. However, the Pledge ended and my day proceeded as usual. No CIA agents detained me on my way out of class. No divine bolt split the heavens to smite me. No burning crosses appeared on my lawn. In fact, very few students noticed, and the ones who did showed no reaction beyond indifferent glances and friendly questions. Perhaps I had jumped to conclusions about my peers.
About a month after I had stopped participating, however, a substitute teacher came to my chemistry class; he was a military veteran who expressed his patriotism in a more traditional way than I. The class knew he was serious when he urged everyone to “get up, stand up,” and they recited the Pledge with a resounding, crushing unity. The substitute noticed my nonparticipation immediately. Despite my attempts to explain that I meant no disrespect, and that my actions were legal under the 1943 Supreme Court case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, he yelled that I was ungrateful, disloyal, and should “get the hell out of [his] classroom.” Although I was terrified, I refused to move. He called the office and was informed that he had to let me stay.
The next day, the substitute was gone, but my problems were not. Overnight, many of my peers had heard about the incident and developed opinions, and they couldn’t wait to inform me. Initially, the reaction was hostile; some students followed the substitute’s cue, and I became the object of shoves and pinches in the halls as well as admonitions to move to France. However, as students continued to confront me and I was given opportunities to explain my position, a startling thing happened: people started to discuss the Pledge of Allegiance among themselves, and they came to many different opinions on the issue. Extracurricular philosophical discussions are always exciting, and I found that voicing a dissenting opinion and standing up for it stimulated debate and a deeper exploration of the issue than many had ventured before.
I now know that simply by maintaining one’s personal integrity, an individual can make a difference, even if only by inspiring debate and inquiry into an issue. This experience instilled in me the confidence I need to maintain my integrity and independence — to be that individual — in the future.
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