Standing up by Sitting Down


When I was a sophomore in high school, I decided to stop standing for the pledge of allegiance. There was no single reason for me to come to this decision—while there were plenty of things our government was doing that I did not agree with (these were the Reagan years, after all), it was more of a matter of slowly realizing that not only did the words in the pledge make me uncomfortable (as an atheist I found the “under god” part particularly irksome), but also that the very sentiment behind it gave me pause. At that point I had only taken one class in world history, but that had been enough to let me know that nationalism never ended well for anyone.

So I stopped. I stopped because once I really thought about what the pledge meant to me I knew that to continue to say it would be dishonest. This decision, of course, did not go over well with my fellow students, and went over even less well with some of the teachers and administrators. Finally, after one class had devolved into chaos, with half the room saying the pledge and half the room not saying the pledge because they were too busy yelling at me to “Stand up! Stand up! Stand up already!” I was called in to speak to the principal about “causing a distraction.” (The irony of the people who were actually doing the yelling not being called in for being “distracting” was not lost on me.)

We spoke at length about why I wasn’t standing and reciting the pledge. And then, after hearing me out, he sent me back to class. And that was that. I never said the pledge again. The shouting continued for the rest of the year, but less and less each time, until finally, by the time I graduated, it was hardly remarked upon at all. And in my mind I thought that that had meant I had won.

For over thirty years now I thought that meant that I had won. Me. Personally. That my arguments were so compelling, my belief so sincere, my demeanor so calm and righteous that the obstacles before me had simply fallen away in shame.

Watching what is now happening on sports fields around the world has caused to me re-evaluate that belief, much to my chagrin.

What if the truth was that the best argument I made sitting there in my principal’s office was one that never came out of my mouth? What if the best argument against me getting into trouble for asserting my rights was simply the fact that me having (and exercising) those same rights didn’t really make anyone uncomfortable? After all, the idea that my people—young, white bookish females—were rising up and calling for change was probably not that intimidating. I mean, yeah, it was a little intimidating (hence the yelling), but really, to older and wiser heads, to the ones who actually had the power (like my principal), it was probably just an anomaly.

A blip.

It is, without a doubt, humbling and kind of depressing when you finally realize that you weren’t quite as “all that” as you’d like to remember. But it is also empowering. It’s like the first time you ever realized that the only reason you had won all those games of Hearts with your grandmother back when you were a kid was because she was letting you. At first you were shocked—your reality was upended. Then you were angry and defensive—surely it wasn’t all of the games? I mean, you must have won some of them, right? And then, finally, you were determined. Determined that, from now on, all games would be on the level. Meaning that, from now on, you would compete as equals.

It is probably the height of irony that now, after all of these years, it is only in watching the hysteria surrounding people protesting against an unequal system that I finally understand just how much I myself have benefitted from that system, but then again, that’s just irony doing its job.

Because really, if there’s anything in this world that truly qualifies as “equal opportunity,” than surely it is irony.


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2 Responses to Standing up by Sitting Down

  1. Janine

    My son agrees with you, Kelly, so I wrote this poem for him. I don’t understand football — it’s up there with the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and other sacred mysteries. I will pitch my tent with New York Times writer David Brooks on the kneeling protest. He disagrees with it. His thinking is Americans need something to unite us in these days of the mad twitterer in the White House, who seems more at home in Alice in Wonderland than the Oval Office. From a mom’s perspective, kneeling is better than getting your head bashed in or being run over by a white supremacist. I’d rather my son or daughter kneel than march. Historical note: “under God” was added to the pledge during the cold war to distinguish us from the atheist Communists.
    Isn’t it a form of adoration?

    Didn’t Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar
    kneel on a cold, hard, winter ground,
    before a Child who would change the world?
    The stars and sheep were witness too.

    And didn’t blue Mary, his best friend John,
    and the girl-who-got-away, called Magdalene,
    stand humbled in dignity and love and woe
    before this new Adam
    executed on a dying tree, this foe of Pharisees
    whose birth and blood
    baptizes the injustice, echoing the Now,
    bulleting across city streets and country roads?

    Kill the pig! Feral boys cry in Lord of the Flies.
    Oh, America, be beautiful, mothers of dead sons reply.

    This Man-Child, this Christ all Beatitude,
    His arms wide, His palms nailed,
    liberated the suffering of the world,
    healing lepers, the lame, all the lonely people.

    White Supremacists, where do you come from?
    Do you keep swastikas in a jar by the door?
    What are your guns and roses and hate for?

    Colin kneels on AstroTurf
    for Freddy Gray and Michael Brown,
    kneels in mourning for the unbroken rest,
    for the deaths of men of color.

    Oh say, can you see the Promise Land?
    Will you write poetry, interior and remote, like Emily?
    Or yawp of the open road, like Walt?
    Will you sing the Star Spangled Banner off-key with me?
    Will you hum of walking home and driving free?

    In a stadium above a field of dreams,
    a new band of brothers, descendants
    of Gandhi and Rosa, kneel in solidarity,
    statues for life, players for our nation’s
    Blessed Mother: Liberty.

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