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Echoes of the Sixties

I still recall the greeting card signed by every member of the teaching staff after all these years. Although the incident in the public school happened nineteen years ago, the issues the case raised, about what constitutes patriotism, are as poignant today as they were then.

I had been working as a reading specialist for two years in a small school in a suburban public school system in Rhode Island, with seventeen years experience within that school district.  I had a good relationship with the school’s principal, Peg, despite the fact that the school’s staff did not like her. We got along well, primarily since she had also been a reading specialist for a number of years, and we spoke at departmental meetings.  I would usually drop into her office for a chat before I began my work day at the school, and we would speak amicably about the status of the school’s reading program, students who needed special help and evaluation of students who were falling behind.

A student had just left my room on the second floor of the school when Peg entered in early June.  After talking for a few moments, Peg added, “I looked for you last week, but I guess you left before we could talk.  I wanted you to lead the school in reciting The Pledge of Allegiance at our annual Flag Day celebration on the school lawn.  I’m sorry I missed you, but make a note of it for next year.” Peg turned to leave.

“It was a nice gesture for you to think of me, Peg, but I don’t recite the Pledge.”

“What!” she fired back, deep frown lines of disapproval etched on her face.

“Peg, thank you again, but I haven’t recited the Pledge since the 1960s.  I don’t mean any disrespect, but I decided long ago that the society would have to change in meaningful ways before I’d recite it again.” For years I had stood silently at school events and it seemed that nobody noticed.  When first starting out as a teacher with a homeroom assignment I would also simply stand while students recited the Pledge each morning, without ever drawing any attention.

“What do you mean by ‘meaningful changes’?”

“Well, like a foreign policy that isn’t based almost exclusively on war.  A domestic policy that included substantial progress for most people.”

“I can’t believe you’re telling me this!” she fired back again.

“Peg, just take a ride a few blocks north of the school.  You’ll see what I mean.  Folks are still living in a ghetto with poor schools, limited job prospects and without much hope for the future.”

With those words, she turned and stormed out of the room. What happened over the next several weeks and months was instructive, and a lesson for me on speaking out about relevant issues in this society.  Whenever I entered the building from another assignment in the school district, Peg would refuse to talk to me.  The teacher’s room became like a freezer in terms of the reception I received upon entering.  At weekly meetings held to discuss students who needed specialized help from staff, Peg treated me with disdain, almost growling remarks intended for me. After a few weeks of this treatment I filed a union grievance, stating that my right to free expression had been limited within the walls of the building. The grievance also noted that I had the right not to recite the Pledge, a policy developed to “protect” students (see Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969) who did not wish to say it during the school day’s opening exercises, and which applied to me under general First Amendment protection of free speech. Over the next several days I feared that some type of retribution would be exacted, and always parked my car in a spot visible from my room.

The grievance hearing turned out to be a travesty.  After affirming that I did not have to recite the Pledge, the union member representing me could not contain his disdain for me. (Prior to the hearing he had shouted insults at me outside the administration building where the hearing would later take place.)  Peg passed a greeting card from her faculty around the grievance hearing room bearing the signatures of every teacher in her building, with the words “Best of luck, Peg,” written on the inside of the card. When I asked a fellow specialist, with whom I had a good working relationship at the school, why she hadn’t sent me a greeting card, she responded cynically, “Do you think I’m crazy?” A few weeks later the school year ended and I was shocked to learn that I had been reassigned to another school despite winning the grievance.

Administrators use what’s called “The Turkey Trot” to harass and sometimes get rid of school staff who have seniority and a good record, but with whom they disagree.  The administration simply moves the teacher from school to school in an attempt to get the message across that the person doesn’t fit into the acceptable mold of the school district. It’s an old device that’s been used effectively against “errant” teachers for decades.

After the dust had settled from the fallout of the school year I called the ACLU and asked for assistance in getting my old assignment back. The spokesperson for that group said that since I was actually not forced to recite the Pledge there was absolutely nothing they could do for me, including appealing my removal from the school.

When the next school year began, I could not envision returning to the school system after the Pledge incident.  I accepted a similar position in a neighboring school department, still smarting and chastened by the experience.

Public schools are often a reflection of the larger society and government, at odds with the ideals of free expression.

HOWARD LISNOFF is an educator and freelance writer.  His Web site is notesofamilitaryresister.net.  He can be reached at howielisnoff@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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