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Miss Avery, my fifth-grade teacher, was a Vermont farm girl who was brought up to work hard and make something of herself. She let us know 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 we knew how to spell; be considerate of others. She also insisted we learn the meaning of a noun she liked to use, a long one, we thought: kindheartedness. And all year, Miss Avery kept on the blackboard this aphorism: “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 standards. Miss Avery reminded us that we all slip, but that direction mattered: a goal to pursue, values to have and to uphold—in her phrase, “a larger vision.”
Those three words were tethered by her to something concrete that stood before us every day: the flag of the United States of America. She was constantly telling each of us, “This is your country.” She took pains to explain what democracy meant, what our Founding Fathers had in mind when they fought for independence. Most of us were nine years old, but she wanted us to understand what we would inherit: the sovereign privilege and responsibility to vote, the bedrock of our participation in a larger community
[pullquote] all year, Miss Avery kept on the blackboard this aphorism: “Have a heart that never hardens, a temper that never tries, a touch that never hurts.” [/pullquote]
It wasn’t that she wanted us to avoid taking 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 (that was 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,” those words embedded in the marble of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, amounted not to a description of what is but a call to what ought to be and hence a call to action.
Every day, we sang our national anthem, and every day, we proudly saluted our nation’s flag. Every day, too, we had a history lesson right after that exercise in allegiance. It was then that a thoughtful and boldly independent-minded teacher made us turn from a glib recital of loyalty to something else.
Miss Avery asked that we put ourselves in the shoes of the presidents and other leaders whose achievements and misdeeds we were studying. We were asked to take sides and argue a point of view before our classmates—with respect, say, to the Revolutionary War (the Tories vs. the Concord and Lexington farmers who stood up to the British) or the Civil War (the South’s planters vs. the abolitionists of New England). By being asked to think about what is right and wrong and how we ought to live our lives, we were making 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, I notice classrooms without the American flag. Many teachers tell me that the salute to the flag never takes place. Some of them say they abhor what one called reflexive patriotism, an unqualified hurrah to a nation.
I respect holding a skepticism of unblinking avowals. Children do 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 pride: the sanctuary, for instance, offered to millions of orphans from various storms who have found so much that is sustaining.
[pullquote] This is our country, and there is much in its history for us to contemplate with pride. [/pullquote]
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 at wrongdoing. When we spoke of “liberty and justice for all,” she was quick to remind us of the difference between an idealized statement and the harsher reality for many Americans. No question, I have been in classrooms where ironies are not acknowledged, and at the other extreme, I have sat in rooms where only blemishes are dwelt upon. Our democratic principles—the things that enable the full and free discussion taking place—are ignored, as if the Bill of Rights in all its glory is to be as overlooked as the flag.
It is important that we and our children keep in mind not only the errors made in our nation’s past but also the social, economic, and racial struggles waged with success that have led to a decent and free life for millions of us. We have good reason 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.