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).

September 25, 2018
Kenneth Surin
Fact-Finding Labour’s “Anti-Semitism” Crisis
Charles Pierson
Destroying Yemen as Humanely as Possible
James Rothenberg
Why Not Socialism?
Patrick Cockburn
How Putin Came Out on Top in Syria
John Grant
“Awesome Uncontrollable Male Passion” Meets Its Match
Guy Horton
Burma: Complicity With Evil?
Steve Stallone
Jujitsu Comms
William Blum
Bombing Libya: the Origins of Europe’s Immigration Crisis
John Feffer
There’s a New Crash Coming
Martha Pskowski
“The Emergency Isn’t Over”: the Homeless Commemorate a Year Since the Mexico City Earthquake
Fred Baumgarten
Ten Ways of Looking at Civility
Dean Baker
The Great Financial Crisis: Bernanke and the Bubble
Binoy Kampmark
Parasitic and Irrelevant: The University Vice Chancellor
September 24, 2018
Jonathan Cook
Hiding in Plain Sight: Why We Cannot See the System Destroying Us
Gary Leupp
All the Good News (Ignored by the Trump-Obsessed Media)
Robert Fisk
I Don’t See How a Palestinian State Can Ever Happen
Barry Brown
Pot as Political Speech
Lara Merling
Puerto Rico’s Colonial Legacy and Its Continuing Economic Troubles
Patrick Cockburn
Iraq’s Prime Ministers Come and Go, But the Stalemate Remains
William Blum
The New Iraq WMD: Russian Interference in US Elections
Julian Vigo
The UK’s Snoopers’ Charter Has Been Dealt a Serious Blow
Joseph Matten
Why Did Global Economic Performance Deteriorate in the 1970s?
Zhivko Illeieff
The Millennial Label: Distinguishing Facts from Fiction
Thomas Hon Wing Polin – Gerry Brown
Xinjiang : The New Great Game
Binoy Kampmark
Casting Kavanaugh: The Trump Supreme Court Drama
Max Wilbert
Blue Angels: the Naked Face of Empire
Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will There Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?