I stood erect, next to my child-sized desk and concentrated on my right hand. The alignment of my fingers, stretched straight together. The placement of my hand over my heart on the left side of my chest. Was that where my heart lay within? I felt for its comforting beat of assurance and glanced up at my teacher for feedback.
Miss Barmeo stood erect as well, her brunette bouffant beehive sprayed securely in place. My mind imagined her bathroom counter cluttered with various potions and lipsticks accented with a giant can of Aqua Net – the very brand my own mother lavishly applied. Catching my wandering attention, I snapped my mind back in place and found my place in the recital around me.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America …“ My lips curled around each word, tasting the sacred seriousness of each syllable. I thought of George Washington with his white-haired pouf and not having yet been introduced to the custom of wig-wearing in Colonial days, I wondered if he used Aqua Net as well. I imagined Abraham Lincoln, so far my favorite president, in his stovepipe hat and charcoal beard. I trained my eyes on the red, white and blue flag, pointing diagonally out toward the classroom from its metal-bracketed anchor and imagined Betsy Ross bent over her sewing before an open hearth.
“… and to the republic for which it stands …” Sideways, I glanced at the faces of my classmates. Most were indifferently repeating each phrase. Some were faking it, with sleepily bobbing heads. A few were serious, likely sharing the curiosity I felt. What did “republic” mean?
“… one nation …” I loved the one nation part. While my young mind didn’t yet understand the torn gash of racism still ripping our country open, I naively believed that what had been wrong had been addressed and right had won. I felt proud and hopeful.
“… under God …” Here I actually smiled. I loved God. I didn’t know much about him but I loved what I knew. When my single mom dropped my older sister and me off at our neighborhood church each Sunday, I gobbled up the air of holy as if I’d been suffocating in the week that had just passed. (Which perhaps I was, in the balloon of my mother’s cigarette smoke that filled my lungs from kitchen to car.)
“… indivisible …” The word slid by, unnoticed. I had no clue what that one meant.
“… with liberty and justice for all.” There. All was right with the world. Again.
I tucked my dress beneath me as I plunked back down in my seat, secure in the safety of my school, my state and my country. I lifted my pencil and formed letters around dotted line templates, mocking their formulaic patterns. I led my mouth to follow my finger through elementary books of Dick and Jane. I ran through recess, dodging balls, hopscotching over lines, neatly jumping as a rope twirled above my head. At lunch, I selected a carton of milk and set it in the slot created to hold it on my tray. I returned to the remainder of the day and whatever lessons the teacher had in store, executing each as directed.
When the dismissal bell rang, I swarmed with the other students, finally freed to the work of play for the rest of the day, and walked the several blocks to my home. There, my mother murmured hello from the couch while her cigarette smoke continued to curl as she reached out to offer a welcome. Or in the seasons where she worked in the city, I latch-keyed my way to the freezer, scooping mounds of ice cream into a bowl of comfort and worked on my homework.
It would be another year before I turned on our black and white television to the news of President Kennedy’s assassination, struggling with the meaning of those syllables. In the coming years there would be too many more with Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.
Decades would pass until I experienced the struggle of women to earn a fair wage. Next the shock of airplanes flying into buildings severed the security of so many and shots fired into schools rifled the refuge of the local classroom, both redefining my understanding of safety along with our guarantee of such a state on this planet. And more recently, sitting across from others in raw conversation, my heart has contorted with the reality of “white privilege” which has allowed me opportunities systemically forbidden to others. (Oh how much I’m learning I need to learn!)
I know, I’m not the first or the only to morph such moral outrage or understanding. I think of the Revolutionary soldiers, the infantries in World War I and the paratroopers, submariners, pilots and beach soldiers — from not just American but also allied countries — fighting for freedom in World War II. Those who fought in Korea and Vietnam and Desert Storm and Afghanistan. Our national leaders and first responders. Missionaries and social justice advocates who work for change around the globe. Preschool, elementary, middle and high school teachers. Health professionals. Inventors. Engineers and construction workers. All those who show up to prepare and serve food. Parents hunkered down in the daily of raising responsible kids. Those serving in nonprofits and churches and those desperate for the help and hope both provide.
America was originally made free and has been increasingly kept free by a myriad of folks over the centuries, each of us discovering and investing our freedom in different stages and ages — with varying results. How will we continue to move toward this hope of freedom?
Today, alone in my study, I stand to my feet beside my computer desk. There’s no flag tilted in pose here but I imagine it just the same. I lift my hand over my worn but wiser heart, straighten my fingers in salute and repeat a pledge that has become more like a prayer. A prayer that as Americans, we might first truly grasp and then carefully steward our unique freedom. For me, this freedom calls me to radically love like Jesus.
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.