When we moved into our house three and a half years ago, there was a decorative roller flag hanging near the front door. It was old, faded, and taped with floral duct tape. We never even pulled it down to look at it.
We had our house painted recently, and finally the roller flag came down. I assumed it was printed with, “Welcome Spring!” or some other seasonal design. Once it was removed, I realized it was actually a faded American flag.
I decided this was a great opportunity to teach my two sons about how to properly fold and retire our nation’s flag. I called around to find a drop-off location, and settled on the local American Legion not far from our house.
I headed to the store to buy a new flag and flagpole to install on our freshly painted house. I couldn’t wait to share this experience with my boys.
I had such a different idea in my mind of how this would all go down.
I imagined my children deferentially excited as we hung the new flag, and reverent and somber as I taught them how to fold the old flag to be retired.
Instead, they were kids. They were bored. They wanted to get back to their iPad and phone.
It would be easy to slip into a “kids these days” discussion.
Certainly kids get too much screen time, especially during this pandemic when parents are working from home and the board games, toys, crafts, soccer net, and basketball hoop have all been overplayed.
But before we get too carried away blaming our kids for being disrespectful, the adults need to examine how we got here in the first place.
When I was in elementary school, a child was selected each week as Student of the Week.
It was an eagerly anticipated honor. The prize? The chosen student got to accompany the school janitor out to the flag pole with the triangle folded flag every morning, carefully unfold it – making sure it did not touch the ground – clip the grommets to the rope, and hoist the flag into the air.
At the end of the school day, you were dismissed down to the office a few minutes before the bell to do the whole process in reverse. Once the flag was down, the student was taught how to properly fold it, and had the very serious responsibility of carrying it back into the school and placing it neatly on the shelf in the office where it was safely stowed away.
Every kid in school wanted to be Student of the Week. This wasn’t something kids had to do. This was something we wanted to do.
The janitor took this job very seriously.
He was a bent over, crotchety old man that was a tad scary. He didn’t have a lot of patience with kids’ grimy hands touching the flag. In hindsight, I’m guessing he was a veteran, as most men of his generation were.
There weren’t enough weeks in the school year for every child to be Student of the Week. So on Veteran’s Day, our teacher selected the most patient and serious child in the class to stand up front and help her with a demonstration on how to fold the flag.
We learned to never let the flag touch the ground, what it meant if it was lowered to half-mast, and that it should never be hung upside down or burned in protest. We were told how to properly retire a flag, and given hand-outs listing local locations to take an old flag in our own community.
The words of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star Spangled Banner were explained. We learned who wrote them, when, and why.
We learned that the flag’s stripes represent the 13 original colonies, and there is a star for each of the 50 states. The red stripes honor the bloodshed and courage of those who defend her. The white symbolizes purity, and the blue symbolizes justice.
In this day and age, the only color it feels like we still deserve is red, and I can’t help but wonder what cause our brave men and women of the military are even fighting for anymore. Is America still worthy of their sacrifice?
As I was suffering through the disappointment over my kids’ lack of interest and investment in this flag that I was taught should mean so much to every American, I realized that it is not their fault. We, their adults, have let them down.
The American flag has been reduced to nothing more than a marketing gimmick, no more reverential than the Pepsi trademark.
We print it on blankets, swimsuits, and even underwear. We sit on it, trample it, sleep in it, toss it in the laundry with our dirty socks.
Political demagogues and extremists claim it as their own, and get offended or enraged when anyone who disagrees with them dares to feel connected to “their” flag.
Republicans and Democrats alike believe that it belongs only to them.
They claim with wide-eyed innocence that the hate is only coming at them, when our children – who always see the truth before the grown-ups – know that it’s coming from all sides.
Every time an adult talks about “all the hate” from the opposition, we are insulting our children’s intelligence. Our lack of personal responsibility for our own bias has made them cynical about the very things we cherish most.
Where once the flag was a symbol of unity that flew above all Americans, in all our uniqueness and diversity, it is now used to divide us, abused by politicians and pseudo-patriots on both sides of the aisle as a propaganda tool.
No wonder my kids weren’t interested.
We’ve given them absolutely no reason to care about our flag. If anything, it is a symbol of division, conflict, and hate. This breaks my heart.
I can’t stop thinking about that old janitor from my childhood, how he must have carried scars I could not see, defending the flag I was taught to revere. I wonder what he’d think of how the flag he fought so hard for is used and abused in 2020. I grieve for him, and for all those who have given so much for all Americans, regardless of our personal politics.
I look around at all the intolerance and hate coming from every direction, and I wonder if we will ever deserve this flag and everything it is meant to represent.
Copyright © 2020 Sara Beth Wald