Ode to the flag

`I PLEDGE allegiance...'' Even though I'm now in my early 40s, the words can still stir strong emotions in me. Feelings of goodness, closeness, pride, patriotism.

``...to the flag...''

Way back in the '50s (a long time ago, so it seems), I was a little boy at Grant School in Melrose Park, Ill. Every morning at Grant School began the same way. In each of our respective classrooms, we all rose up. We faced the flag. The flag usually hung from a dowel rod positioned above the blackboard in one corner of the room. We placed our right hand over our hearts.

``...of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation...''

Dwight Eisenhower was President back then. I felt safe. My father had said to me, ``Don't worry. The Russians won't bother us. Eisenhower used to be a general.'' Ike had a wonderful smile. To me he was like having an extra grandfather. During President Eisenhower's administration the following words were added to the pledge:

``...under God...''

New words for the pledge! ``Under God'' caused quite a stir. Many of us had stumbled with the new expression. We were so used to the rhythms of the old words. Every inflection had been learned by heart. But soon the new word rhythms took hold. ``Under God.'' Year after year passed.

``...indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.''

Should the pledge be said each day by schoolchildren throughout America? Should teachers be required to lead the pledge?

My mind tends to say no. Don't we Americans also cherish freedom of speech? Should anyone be forced to say something he or she doesn't want to say? Doesn't the First Amendment guarantee our right of free speech?

And what about ``under God''? What if someone doesn't believe in God? Or what if someone believes in many gods? What about our tradition of separation of church and state?

Still, I'm troubled.

Will our purist reasoning take us to the point where we are merely a massive collection of disconnected people? Can we at least have a few symbols that bind us together? The flag. The national anthem. The pledge of allegiance.

My mind says no to the pledge in schools; yet my heart says yes. So, when my daughter each morning stands in her school, places her hand across her chest, and says, ``I pledge allegiance...,'' I am proud. I believe my heart is right.

Ted Zalewski is a high school teacher in Watertown, Mass., and a writer for children.

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