CASTINE, MAINE — Last August, at our faculty meeting before the new school year, we asked, "Do the kids really know the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance, and should we repeat it every day? Do they even know what it means to pledge, to swear an oath?"
As we discussed the rationale for the school's longstanding tradition, a new idea arose. Why not begin each day of the week with a different pledge? Perhaps our students could even write one.
Certainly, there were many things to which we as a school and as individuals could make a daily commitment. And by writing our own pledge we could study the very reason people make pledges, and learn firsthand the difficulty in coming up with language that feels representative and inclusive. Most of all, we wanted a school ritual that felt personal, local, and instructive, rather than rote.
We decided to begin the week with the customary Pledge of Allegiance, and follow it on successive days with texts that were new and different.
A pledge I remembered hearing at another elementary school, written by Chicago educator Marva Collins, started us off on Tuesdays: "This day has been given to me fresh and clear. I can either use it or throw it away. I promise to use this day to the fullest, realizing it can never come back again. I realize this is my life, to use or to throw away."
Wednesday is art day. To embrace our work in art and music, we affirmed: "I will pursue truth, beauty, and good with compassion, courage, and respect." Short, but sweet - and inspirational to the fourth-grade papier-mâché fish project.
An Iroquois prayer, familiar to some as a folk song, became our Thursday pledge, one that helped us think long term - of the planet and our fellow man: "Let us know peace. For as long as the moon shall rise, For as long as the rivers shall flow, For as long as the sun will shine, For as long as the grass shall grow, Let us know peace."
Our last pledge was drawn up by Mrs. Pelletier's second- and third- graders, who'd studied both the Bill of Rights and the garbage problem at lunchtime. They gave voice to our own local aspirations, the hopes and commitments we had as a school: "I pledge to do my best for Adams School. I will show respect for my school and community. I will help to keep it clean and obey the rules. I will work hard in class. I will be kind at all times. I will do my best to make Adams School a happy place, even if it takes all I have."
Our pledges were printed in large type and posted for the all-school meeting that starts each day. After announcements, teachers and students from kindergarten through 8th-grade recited that day's pledge in unison. As the year progressed, we even referred to the various pledges when current events or school problems caught our attention. In other words, the pledges guided us, and we tried to make them feel alive and relevant to our work as individuals and as a school community.
On the last day of school, I added a touch of whimsy from "Stargirl," a young adult novel by Jerry Spinelli: "I pledge allegiance to United Turtles of America and to the fruit bats of Borneo, one planet in the Milky Way, incredible, with justice and black bean burritos for all."
It's a good idea for the school principal to deliver an occasional reminder that daily humor is a worthy credo, and - lest we take ourselves too seriously - that we are one small planet in a medium-sized galaxy.
• Todd R. Nelson is principal of the Adams School, the public elementary school in Castine, Maine.