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.





More articles by:

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

April 26, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
As Trump Berates Iran, His Options are Limited
Daniel Warner
From May 1968 to May 2018: Politics and Student Strikes
Simone Chun – Kevin Martin
Diplomacy in Korea and the Hope It Inspires
George Wuerthner
The Attack on Wilderness From Environmentalists
CJ Hopkins
The League of Assad-Loving Conspiracy Theorists
Richard Schuberth
“MeToo” and the Liberation of Sex
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Sacred Assemblies in Baghdad
Dean Baker
Exonerating Bad Economic Policy for Trump’s Win
Vern Loomis
The 17 Gun Salute
Gary Leupp
What It Means When the U.S. President Conspicuously and Publicly Removes a Speck of Dandruff from the French President’s Lapel
Robby Sherwin
The Hat
April 25, 2018
Stanley L. Cohen
Selective Outrage
Dan Kovalik
The Empire Turns Its Sights on Nicaragua – Again!
Joseph Essertier
The Abductees of Japan and Korea
Ramzy Baroud
The Ghost of Herut: Einstein on Israel, 70 Years Ago
W. T. Whitney
Imprisoned FARC Leader Faces Extradition: Still No Peace in Colombia
Manuel E. Yepe
Washington’s Attack on Syria Was a Mockery of the World
John White
My Silent Pain for Toronto and the World
Dean Baker
Bad Projections: the Federal Reserve, the IMF and Unemployment
David Schultz
Why Donald Trump Should Not be Allowed to Pardon Michael Cohen, His Friends, or Family Members
Mel Gurtov
Will Abe Shinzo “Make Japan Great Again”?
Binoy Kampmark
Enoch Powell: Blood Speeches and Anniversaries
Frank Scott
Weapons and Walls
April 24, 2018
Carl Boggs
Russia and the War Party
William A. Cohn
Carnage Unleashed: the Pentagon and the AUMF
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
The Racist Culture of Canadian Hockey
María Julia Bertomeu
On Angers, Disgusts and Nauseas
Nick Pemberton
How To Buy A Seat In Congress 101
Ron Jacobs
Resisting the Military-Now More Than Ever
Paul Bentley
A Velvet Revolution Turns Bloody? Ten Dead in Toronto
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Left, Syria and Fake News
Manuel E. Yepe
The Confirmation of Democracy in Cuba
Peter Montgomery
Christian Nationalism: Good for Politicians, Bad for America and the World
Ted Rall
Bad Drones
Jill Richardson
The Latest Attack on Food Stamps
Andrew Stewart
What Kind of Unionism is This?
Ellen Brown
Fox in the Hen House: Why Interest Rates Are Rising
April 23, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
In Middle East Wars It Pays to be Skeptical
Thomas Knapp
Just When You Thought “Russiagate” Couldn’t Get Any Sillier …
Gregory Barrett
The Moral Mask
Robert Hunziker
Chemical Madness!
David Swanson
Senator Tim Kaine’s Brief Run-In With the Law
Dave Lindorff
Starbucks Has a Racism Problem
Uri Avnery
The Great Day
Nyla Ali Khan
Girls Reduced to Being Repositories of Communal and Religious Identities in Kashmir