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Learning to Love America

I cringed as my young son recited the Pledge of Allegiance. But who was I to question his innocent trust in America?
 
 
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When people give driving directions to the upstate New York hamlet of Narrowsburg, they always refer to the big red brick schoolhouse at the stoplight. Narrowsburg Central Rural School has been on the hill on School Street since 1929, educating four generations of local children.

Nobody alive in town remembers a time when the campus -- with its white doors, sloping green lawn, and Stars and Stripes snapping in the breeze -- was not there. But last year, bankrupted by local fiscal mismanagement and the woes of the post 9/11 New York state economy, the little school was shuttered. When the last student skipped out of its double doors in the summer of 2005, janitors moved in with packing tape and boxes from a nearby egg farm to empty the classrooms. Among the pupils left behind was my son, a member of the last kindergarten class.

Our family first arrived in Narrowsburg in 2000 as city people hunting for a cheap house. For barely $50,000 we were able to buy the "weekend house" we thought would complete our metropolitan existence. But soon after we closed on the home, we moved to Paris, spurred by the serendipitous arrival of a book contract. When our European idyll ended after two years, and with tenants still subletting our city apartment, we moved into the Narrowsburg house. After growing accustomed to the French social system -- with its cheap medicine, generous welfare, short work week and plentiful child care -- life back in depressed upstate New York felt especially harsh. We'd never planned to get involved in the life of the town, nor had it ever occurred to us that we might send our son to the Narrowsburg School. Suddenly we were upstate locals, with a real stake in the community.

In the fall of 2004, we enrolled our son in kindergarten at the Narrowsburg School. The school's reputation among our friends, other "second-home-owners," was not good. "Do they even have a curriculum?" sniffed one New York City professor who kept a weekend home nearby. Clearly, Narrowsburg School was not a traditional first step on the path to Harvard. As far as I could tell, though, no one besides us had ever set foot inside the building. When my husband and I investigated, we were pleasantly surprised. The school had just been renovated; it was clean, airy, cheerful. The nurse and the principal knew every one of the 121 children by name. Our son would be one of just twelve little white children in a sunny kindergarten class taught by an enthusiastic woman with 18 years' experience teaching five-year-olds.

Still, for the first few months, we felt uneasy. Eighty of Narrowsburg's 319 adults are military veterans and at least ten recent school graduates are serving in Iraq or on other bases overseas right now. The school's defining philosophy was traditional and conservative, starting with a sit-down-in-your-seat brand of discipline, leavened with a rafter-shaking reverence for country and flag. Every morning the students gathered in the gym for a "Morning Program," open to parents, which began with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a patriotic song, and then discussion of a "Word of the Week." During the first few weeks, the words of the week seemed suspiciously tied to a certain political persuasion: "Military," "tour," "nation" and "alliance," were among them.

But it wasn't until our boy came home with an invitation in his backpack to attend a "released-time" Bible class that my husband and I really panicked. We called the ACLU and learned this is an entirely legal way for evangelicals to proselytize to children during school hours. What is against the law is sending the flyer home in a kid's backpack, implying school support. After we called to inquire about the legality, the ACLU formally called the principal to complain. She apologized and promised never to allow it again. While we were never identified as the people who dropped the dime to the ACLU, there was clearly no one else in the school community who would have done so -- and the principal never looked at us quite as warmly again.

Shortly afterward, another parent casually told me that she wanted to bring her daughter's religious cartoon videos in to share with the class but couldn't because "some people" might object. When we later learned that the cheery kindergarten teacher belonged to one of the most conservative evangelical churches in the community, we were careful not to challenge anyone or to express any opinion about politics or religion, out of fear our son would be singled out. Instead, to counteract any God-and-country indoctrination he received in school, we began our own informal in-home instruction about Bush, Iraq and Washington over the evening news.

Learning to love America

Politically, Narrowsburg is red dot in a blue state. It is not named for any small-town frame of mind, but for the way the Delaware River narrows at the edge of town, then widens into a serene, lakelike eddy that at twilight mirrors the lights of town and the ranch-style houses on the flats. The towering pines along the river are nesting spots for bald eagles that soar year-round in pairs above Main Street and swoop down into the river to sink their talons into trout sighted from a hundred feet up. That year, driving to school every morning along the water, my son and I witnessed the wind gradually scrape away the bright foliage, the snow fall and the ground freeze. In the white, leafless months, we could see the entire span of the Delaware River valley from the car, a long arc of pastoral perfection.

If you knew nothing else of the world, if you were just five or six or ten years old, and this place was your only America, you wouldn't have any reason at all to question the Narrowsburg School's Morning Program routine. Hand over heart, my son belted out the Pledge with gusto every morning, and memorized and sang the Star Spangled Banner. I never stopped resisting the urge to sit down in silent protest during the Pledge. But I also never failed to get choked up when they sang "America the Beautiful."

Listening to their little voices, I felt guilty for being a nonbeliever. When I was five years old, in 1965, did I understand what my lefty parents were saying about the Kennedy assassination, Watts and dead soldier counts? Who was I to deprive my son, or his 11 kindergarten chums, of their faith in a nation capable of combining "good with brotherhood?" In a five-year-old's perfect world, perhaps such places should exist.

That November, at the school's annual Veterans' Day program, the children performed the trucker anthem God Bless the USA (one of the memorable lines is "Ain't no doubt I love this la-aand, God Bless the USA-ay!"), as their parents sang along. About a dozen local veterans -- ancient men who served in World War II, and men on the cusp of old age who served in Korea and Vietnam -- settled into folding chairs that had been arranged beneath the flag. When the students were finished singing, the principal asked the veterans to stand and identify themselves. Watching from the audience, I wondered if anyone would speak of the disaster unfolding in Iraq (it was never a Word of the Week).

No one did. The men rose and stated their names, ranks and theaters. Finally, a burly, gray-bearded Vietnam veteran rose and said what no one else dared. After identifying himself, he choked out, "Kids, I just hope to God none of you ever have to experience what we went through." Then he sat down, leaving a small pocket of shocked silence. No one applauded his effort at honesty. On the contrary, the hot gym air thickened with a tension that implicitly ostracized the man, and by extension -- because we agreed with him -- me and my husband.

A month later, just before Christmas, my son and I drove together into New York City with bags of children's clothes and shoes he and his sister had outgrown. The Harlem unit of the National Guard was putting on a Christmas clothing drive for Iraqi children. On the way into the city, I tried to explain to my son what we were doing, and -- as best I could -- why. As we crossed the George Washington Bridge and the Manhattan skyline spread out below us, I began to give him a variation on the "Africans don't have any food, finish your dinner" talk. I wanted him to understand how privileged he was to live in a place where bombs don't rain from the sky. It was a talk I'd tried to have before, but not one he'd ever paid much attention to until that day, trapped in the backseat of our car.

In simple language, I told my son that our president had started a war with a country called Iraq. I said that we were bombing cities and destroying buildings. And I explained that families just like ours now had no money or food because their parents didn't have offices to go to anymore or bosses to pay them. "America did this?" my son asked incredulously. "Yes, America," I answered. He paused, a long silent pause, then burst out: "But mommy, I love America! I want to hug America!"

Shedding patriotism

A month after the Christmas outburst, the first rumors that all was not well with the school began circulating. Fiscal mismanagement, high fuel and retirement costs and the depleted state economy had created a huge and unexpected cash shortfall for the tiny district. The parents of Narrowsburg School soon had a figure: It was going to cost just over $600,000 to keep their school open for another year. Chump change in Washington and New York City, but impossible to collect in a town where the median family income is barely $45,000. By late June 2005, the little school's fate was sealed. To my surprise I found I was deeply sorry about it.

The patriotization of our son was thorough enough to survive the summer. He decorated his birthday cookies with red, white and blue sugar, and in his summer camp program, when doing arts and crafts, those were the colors of paint he favored. "I made the stars red, white and blue -- like the flag!" he exclaimed, holding a paper mobile he'd strung together.

Now it has been almost a year since my son scampered down the steps of Narrowsburg Central Rural School for the last time. We've since returned to the city, driven back to urban life more by adult boredom and the need to earn a living than our children's relative educational opportunities. Our son is now enrolled in a well-rated K-5 public school on Manhattan's Upper West Side; he's one of two white kids in his class. Not surprisingly, the Pledge of Allegiance is no longer part of his morning routine. Come to think of it, and I could be wrong, I've never seen a flag on the premises.

My husband and I realized, though, that Narrowsburg did more than mold our boy into a patriot. He can, it turns out -- despite the warnings of other city parents -- read at a level twice that of his new peers. Since we returned to the city, he has learned how to ride a bike, long for an X-Box, practiced a few new swear words, and, somehow, learned the meaning of "sexy." He has pretty much stopped favoring red, white and blue.

How soon childish national pride is shed, I sometimes think now, and not a little wistfully. Only once it was gone did I realize that, after our initial discomfort, my husband and I had begun to see our son's patriotism as a badge of innocence. His faith was a reminder to us that the reason we are devastated by the war in Iraq and the Bush presidency is that we too love America. We too want to believe in its potential for good and brotherhood.

Our family now visits the Narrowsburg house only on weekends and holidays. Sometimes we pass the stately red brick school building, so recently renovated with thermal windows and elevators for the disabled, a town landmark for 75 years. The flag still flies there, but the doors are padlocked and the windows are black.

A different version of this article first appeared on Salon.com

Nina Burleigh has written for the Washington Post , the Chicago Tribune and New York magazine.