M ISS AVERY, my fifth-grade teacher, was a Vermont farm girl who was brought up to work hard and make something of herself. She often let us know that she wanted to impart to us the values her parents had given her.
I remember her exhortations---—be diligent, a word she favored; be conscientious, a word she made sure each of us knew how to spell; be considerate of others.
She insisted that we learn the meaning of a noun she liked to use, a long one, we thought: kindheartedness. All year, Miss Avery kept on the blackboard this aphorism for us to contemplate: “Have a heart that never hardens, a temper that never tries, a touch that never hurts.”
Never? I was skeptical that I could meet such high standards. Miss Avery reminded us that we all slip, but that direction truly mattered: a goal to pursue, values to have and to uphold---—in her phrase, “a larger vision.
Those three words were tethered by Miss Avery to something concrete that stood before us each day: the flag of the United States of America.
She was constantly telling each of us, “Thi s is your country.” She took real pains to explain what “democracy” meant, what America’s founding fathers had in mind when they fought for independence . Most of us were only nine years old, but she wanted us to understand what we one day would inherit---—a sovereign privilege and responsibility to vote, the bedrock of our participation in a larger community.
It wasn’t that she wanted us to avoid a candid look at America’s past and present life . Quite the contrary. We spent a lot of time learning about the mistakes and injustices committed over the generations. We learned about slavery and the long struggle of Negroes (the word we used then) for their rights. Indeed, 20 years before the civil-rights movement, Miss Avery was reminding us that “equal justice under law,” words embedded in the marble of the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., amounted not to a description of what is, but a call to what ought to be, hence, a call to action.
Every single day, as part of this, we sang our national anthem, and every day we proudly saluted our nation’s flag after doing the flag’s pledge..
Every day, too, we had a history lesson right after that exercise in allegiance. And it was then that a thoughtful and boldly independent-minded teacher made us turn from a glib recital of loyalty, easily forgotten seconds later, to quite something else.
Miss Avery asked that we put ourselves in the shoes of the Presidents and generals whose achievements (and misdeeds) we were studying.
We were asked to take sides and argue one or another point of view before our classmates-----with respect, say, to the Revolutionary War (the Tories versus the Concord and Lexington farmers who stood up to the British) or the Civil War (the South’s planters versus the abolitionists of New England) . By being asked to look inward and think about what is right and wrong, and how we ought to live our lives, we were learning a leap of the moral imagination.
These days, I often find myself wondering how to ask my own children or my students to think about America. In school after school after school, I notice classrooms without the American flag even present. . And teachers tell me that the salute to the flag never takes place, even where it is present.
Some teachers say they abhor what one called “reflexive patriotism,” a compliant, unqualified hurrah to a nation. It is a good thing, they assert, that both the Bible and the flag have taken leave of the classroom.
I respect a certain skepticism of unblinking, pietistic avowals. Children need encouragement to sift and sort, to be wary of what strikes them as phony or hypocritical. But children also need convictions——something (and someone) to trust, to hold up as worthy of admiration.
Moreover, we are all Americans. This is our country, and there is much in its history for us to contemplate with a good deal of pride: the sanctuary, for instance, offered to untold millions, orphans from varions storms who have found here so very much that is sustaining.
“True, some paid a heavy price for this achievement. Yet, as Miss Avery showed us, there is a way to pay homage to a country, while at the same time reserving the right to register disapproval, even to cry out in anguish and outrage at perceived wrongdoing.
When we fifth-graders saluted the flag and spoke of “liberty and justice tor all,” Miss Avery was quick to remind us of the difference between an idealized statement and the harsher reality for too many Americans.
No question, I have been in classrooms where no such ironies are allowed acknowledgment. At the other extreme, I have sat in classrooms where only the blemishes are dwelt upon . The national democratic values and principles---—the very things that enable the full and free discussion that is taking place---—are willfully ignored there, as if the Bill of Rights in all its glory is to be as overlooked as the flag.
It is very important that we and our children keep in mind not only the errors made in our nation’s past, the missteps and misdeeds and worse, but the social, economic and racial struggles waged with considerable success that have brought about a decent and free life for millions of us.
We have good reason, all of us, to want our children to appreciate this country and to hail the flag as its symbol--- even as we expect them to become citizens unafraid to look squarely at what still needs to be done if a nation’s ideals are to become its everyday reality.
ROBERT COLES, M.D. is professor of
psychiatry and medical humanities at
Harvard University and author of the
Pulitzer Prize-winning book series
Children of Crisis.
@ 1994 By: Robert Coles
Family Life (July/August ‘94)
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