I was only six years old, but I’ll never forget the first time I understood what it meant to be an American.
It was the middle of a long, dreary winter, the kind that leaves you doubting spring might ever triumph. From the muted overcast sky to the dingy, weeks-old snow covering the ground, the world seemed strangely faded and somber.
It matched the mood of my first grade teacher as she gently tried to explain the war that was raging halfway around the world.
Operation Desert Storm was underway on the unforgiving deserts of the Middle East. Back home, the Gulf War had launched turmoil in some of our young lives, too; my hometown is just a few miles from a large Air Force base, so some of my classmates had fathers, uncles, brothers who’d been deployed to fight a bad guy named Saddam Hussein.
It was pretty heavy stuff for kids just learning to decipher phonics and arithmetic to comprehend.
We started each day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, our small hands splayed over our hearts. The flag was mounted high on the wall in the corner of the classroom; it was small, but it sure seemed mighty.
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands…”
My heart stirred beneath my hand with a kind of pride and gratitude I recognize now was patriotism. I may not have understood the why behind the fighting, but I sensed the gravity of it all. The grown-ups I knew were worried but brave. Tankers rumbled across dusty deserts on our television screens at night, their red, white, and blue flags whipping in the wind. Americans were rising to the challenge of defending liberty and justice overseas—and supporting each other with kindness and compassion back home.
No wonder that little flag on the classroom wall looked so formidable.
The flag has been in the news in recent days, at the center of a firestorm between players in the National Football League and the President of the United States. Some players have started kneeling during the National Anthem as a way of protesting perceived social and racial injustices across the country. President Donald Trump took issue with the demonstration and turned to his Twitter account to denounce their actions.
My Facebook feed has been lighting up with opinions on the topic, ranging from “How dare they not stand for the National Anthem!” to “How dare anyone question their right not to stand”
I’ll let you Google the details, but allow me to summarize: it’s all exhausting.
I wish I could hit the pause button on the national frenzy du jour and transport every last one of us to my first-grade classroom, for just a moment. We understood something then, at six years old, that I fear we’re losing sight of today, something we desperately need to reclaim: reverence and respect.
Reverence, for me, means standing for the National Anthem and placing my hand over my heart.
Reverence, for you, might mean taking a knee as the anthem plays as an act of peaceful protest.
Respect for all of us means we understand the American flag extends each one of us the freedom to do either.
“…one nation, Under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”