Rocking the boat requires courage

by Michele K. Jones
Published in The Real Paper on March 23, 2001

I stood up every morning of my public school years and recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

In Kindergarten, I stumbled over the words, mispronouncing some of them and forgetting others. In fourth grade, I giggled with my classmates at the different student each day selected to lead that morning's pledge.

By eighth grade, I recited the Pledge of Allegiance without any thoughts about it. I was paying more attention to the cute boy across the room and wondering if the pimple on my chin was very obvious.

In eleventh grade, I stood for the Pledge, annoyed by the intrusive intercom that interrupted last minute cramming for the test I had that morning. I mumbled the habitual words while I continued to study the vocabulary list on my desk.

I graduated from high school, went to college, and now I never say the Pledge. I never think about it.

But this week I realized the truth - I never did think about it. I repeated the words every morning and never once thought about what they mean.

Ieisha Gilliam doesn't say the Pledge of Allegiance. But I'm betting that she thinks about what it means every day she chooses not to recite it.

Ieisha, a Woodham High School student, was suspended from school for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. School officials say that her punishment resulted from a failure to obey a teacher who instructed her to stand, not her refusal to say the pledge.

Ieisha refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance because she does not believe that there is "liberty and justice for all" in the United States. Her mother stands by her decision.

Unlike most people, Ieisha paid enough attention to the words of the Pledge to determine that she didn't agree with them. She should be applauded, not punished.

One of the most trying periods in parents' lives is when their children enter the "Why?" phase. Anything a child is told to do is met with the question, "Why?"

"Time for bed, Jason."
"Why do I have to go to bed?"
"Because it's bed time."
"Why does it have to be bedtime?"
"Because that's our rule."
"Because I said so."
"Because I'm your mother, that's why!"

And so the training begins. From pure frustration, we teach children not to question authority, and on issues of bedtime and doing homework, we're right to do so. Children need to go to bed on time and do their homework so they may be healthy and educated.

But somewhere along the line, we answer so many questions with, "Because I said so," that we, as adults, forget to question why we do the things we do.

Too often, particularly in school when we are intent on fitting in with a group, we go along with what is common and what we are told to do, because arguing is too much trouble. We keep up habits we don't understand.

Ieisha Gilliam rose above this mental laziness.

Like me, Ieisha was probably taught the Pledge of Allegiance in Kindergarten and recited it without question for many years.

Somewhere in her life, though, she stopped to ask "Why?" She questioned what the words of the Pledge really mean. She asked herself if she believed in what she was saying, and decided she didn't.

Then Ieisha acted, or should I say refused to act. She began staying in her seat when the rest of the class stood to recite the Pledge.

And she was punished. She served a one-day suspension for not following her teacher's instructions to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Ieisha was punished for small-scale civil disobedience.

She was punished for thinking.

Americans follow each other in droves. If someone stops and questions the status quo, the group rolls its eyes and says, "Just go along. It's easier. Don't rock the boat. Don't make waves."

On any given issue, Americans divide themselves into three groups - 20 percent for, 20 percent against, and 60 percent who are uninformed, apathetic, or unwilling to voice their opinion.

I congratulate Ieisha for not being one of the 60 percent. Regardless of whether or not I agree with the opinion, I'm happy to see a person who has the courage to go against the norm, to stand up (or sit down, in Ieisha's case) for their right to think for themselves.

We should encourage more students to question their habits and what is common or comfortable. Students should be encouraged to think, not punished for it.