Intersections – What we stand for
By Nicki Salcedo, contributor
Last year, I volunteered to help in a fifth grade class. The students were preparing for their final project. Not every kid wants to make a presentation in front of their class and parents, but kids have to take risks and face new challenges. Plus, by the time kids hit that age they’ve finally stopped being fetuses. They are almost little human persons. It’s neat. I like kids at that age.
One morning when I entered class, there was a substitute teacher. The class wasn’t completely out of order, but I could tell the kids were testing the boundaries. We paused to listen to the morning announcements. The kids stood for the pledge. Some of them.
A girl prodded her two neighbors.
“Don’t stand up,” she whispered.
One girl stood.
“Don’t stand up. Don’t stand up,” the instigator continued.
The three girls fell into their seats.
Across the room, another student sat. He was a boy with long limbs and glasses. He sat in his chair with one leg folded into the seat. He looked like a toddler and a grown man at the same time. He was writing in his journal. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t bring any attention to himself.
Closer to me the girls continued to giggle.
I felt my ire rise. These weren’t my kids. I wasn’t the teacher. Even the teacher wasn’t the real teacher. The regular teacher was out for the day.
I made a decision, and you can tell me if it was the right one. I quietly went up to the girls and said, “Stand up.”
Here is the strange thing. They did.
The classroom is very diverse. I know these kids. Some are Jewish and Muslim, some come from places like India and Nigeria. All the brown kids were standing with hands over their hearts. It was the white ones, the ones universally accepted as American, who thought it was funny to joke during the pledge. That is their privilege. Not mine.
I vented about the incident that evening. The blessing and curse of social media. The ability to overshare and get a firestorm of response.
“They don’t have to stand.”
“You shouldn’t have called them out. You aren’t the teacher.”
I’d been in that class for six weeks. I’d never seen those three girls sit during the pledge once when their regular teacher was present. Let’s be clear. They were being rude to the substitute teacher. They took advantage of a perceived vulnerability. They thought acting out would be cool.
I didn’t say anything to the boy across the room who also sat. If he was protesting the bureaucracy and oppression of the pledge at age 10, well good for him. His protest worked. But I don’t think he was making a conscious effort to abstain from saying the pledge. He was engrossed in his writing. He was quiet. He was not causing a scene.
I’d been in the class for six weeks. I know when a kid is being a jerk. I know when a kid is distracted. I know that a substitute teacher rarely gets to teach, because some of the kids will act out all day.
Should I have stood up to those kids? I don’t know.
I always stand for the pledge. I know it in English and Spanish. I stand for the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” For someone who does a terrible job at following directions, I like rules and order.
I remembered the first time I read a poem by E. E. Cummings. I asked, “Why have we been diagraming sentences and learning grammar? What about capitalization? And punctuation marks?”
My teacher said, “You must first learn the rules in order to break them.”
Kids should stand. Most of us should stand. But not all of us. Some of us should sit. That’s okay. Is the reason perfect? Is the protest perfect? Probably not. What do I know? I openly wept during the Hungarian national anthem at the Olympics. And I’m not Hungarian. Silence and respect are important, because one day you might need to rage and protest. Who will listen if you’ve treated your entire life like a fifth grader playing a prank? No one.
What will I do when I need to be heard? Fall to my knees? Raise my hand? I’m not easily swayed by complacency or rage.
What will it mean if one day I sit down when I should stand?
“Intersections,” the book, is a collection of columns from Decaturish.com and beyond. It is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom. Her column, Intersections, runs every Wednesday morning.