After learning that my son, the Little Monster, had never heard of My Country ‘Tis of Thee, I realized he’d also never heard, much less memorized, the Pledge of Allegiance, which isn’t recited in the classroom in our neck of the woods. Going into the fifth grade, he’d never memorized anything except the multiplication tables last summer and a few songs for choir, like SpongeBob SquarePants, in which his complicated part went like this:
It’s not just the lack of memorization skills that concerns me. I’m sad about the loss of a ritual. I have a strong, visceral memory of saying the Pledge of Allegiance every morning at the start of the school day. I think the morning tradition settled the kids down and let us know that classroom learning had begun. We’d left our other worlds behind. The recitation centered and grounded us, like an extended Ohm.
My sense of sorrow over the Pledge of Allegiance has nothing to do with patriotism, because when I was a child I had not the faintest idea what the Pledge of Allegiance meant. It was a series of sounds—and timed pauses—that I intoned in unison with my classmates. First came the scraping of chairs as we all scooted back and stood up, the alive-with-chatter room suddenly still and silent as we took a breath before beginning. We all put our hands over our hearts and faced the same direction toward the limp flag on its stand with four scratched, uneven wooden legs at the back of the classroom. We all recited with conviction and good cheer, all of us together: Roc Hirano, whom we all had crushes on, perhaps because he was smaller than the other boys and thus not as threatening as puberty loomed for all of us; and Windsor Pafias with his red hair and silver braces and unfortunate name and habit of quoting witty lines from Welcome Back Kotter as if he’d made them up himself; and Annette Seiji and Vivian Takahashi and Ann who developed ahead of the rest of us so that many assumptions were made about her character and the other Ann who was tiny and shy and smart, which meant that naturally she would marry Roc, who was also smart as a whip; and the military girls who cycled in and out, like Jenny Eng and Christine Held and Claire Hibler, whose dog was named Adolf.
The Pledge of Allegiance takes me straight back to chalk and open windows and open doors and the red dirt dust of those schoolrooms and to the names that come flooding back—to Mrs. Kawamoto, my fourth grade teacher; to Mrs. Ching, my fifth grade teacher; to Miss Shimada, my sixth grade teacher; and to my sixth grade social studies teacher whose name eludes me but who was a wisp of a man with tan polyester pants and a wide-legged stance that reduced his height further, and big teeth and an even larger sense of enthusiasm and purpose and good cheer; and to the substitute teacher Mrs. Beal, called Mrs. B.O. for no reason other than that we were naturally suspicious of a woman with startled smears of blue eyeshadow and spidery eyelashes and her distaste for native tribes who, she told us, used sticks to wipe their bums. At the time I wasn’t sure how this was possible, and I’m still not. That just sounds…scratchy. And ineffective. And unnecessary. Leaves still seem to me to be a more logical choice, for logic also concludes that where there are sticks, there are leaves.
Teachers, teachers, teachers, always with a piece of chalk in their hands, chalk on their clothes, and their own home lunch perched on their desks, where they would remain to eat.
The Little Monster won’t have a daily rite that will awaken his brain to sense memories decades later, which will give him a sense of peace and pleasure and appreciation for sixth graders who accurately distrusted a person like Mrs. B.O., although we couldn’t have said why.
I can’t give him the ritual, but I can give him the words.
From memory, I wrote the Pledge of Allegiance out on a piece of paper and told him his job that week, the July 4th week, would be to memorize it, and that he would recite it for us on Independence Day.
“Why is it written like that?” he asked.
I had broken the one, long sentence into smaller lines, like poetry that took up an entire page.
“Because it’s easier to memorize that way,” the Man I Married broke in, because he likes to answer questions for me, because otherwise our marriage would be too peaceful and harmonious.
Frankly I don’t know why I wrote it out that way. That’s how it appeared in my mind, with line breaks representing the synchronized pauses of Windsor and Roc and the Anns and Jenny in our school building, with its row of propped-open doors, not a mile from Pearl Harbor.
In a likely vain attempt to avoid Donzerly Light Syndrome, we explained to the Little Monster the meaning of allegiance, liberty, and indivisible. When we explained indivisible, we referred to the Civil War; at his age I had pictured Southerners with picks and shovels, chopping at the land until it separated with a great heave like when you pull out a clump of crab grass that finally gives after much tugging. I was a literal child and also believed that a bridge was being built between California and Hawaii.
The spring and summer of my sixth grade year was also the nation’s Bicentennial, with patriotism at a passionate height. My school was within spitting distance of the Arizona Memorial, where over 1100 U.S. soldiers had died on one day in 1941. After a Saturday night bender in Waikiki, my grandfather “slept” through the bombing not far from his bedroom window. He woke up later only when his Japanese-American (a term not used back then) friend Wally Kaketani called him, desperate for asylum until anti-Japanese hysteria on the streets died down. My grandfather escorted him safely home, somewhat redeeming himself.
Our class was made up a mix of Asian-American kids and military kids, or kids like me, whose military dads had remained in the islands and married local moms. It had been less than 20 years since Hawaii became a state, and only 35 years since the “date which would live in infamy” would have cloaked this very schoolyard with black smoke.
We weren’t taught Hawaiian history, except for being instructed that Hawaii’s last queen had handed her rule over to the U.S., which we interpreted as a wise and willing gesture on her part, not an overthrow involving imprisonment and guns. But that same Bicentennial year, the Hokulea—a traditional Polynesian canoe—sailed without modern navigational devices from Hawaii to Tahiti, revitalizing an interest in Hawaiian culture and history. My mother had attended Lincoln Elementary in Honolulu, where she said the Pledge of Allegiance (without the “under God” line added later) every morning, though Hawaii was not yet a state. She now attends art classes at the same school, renamed Linekona, the “Hawaiianized” spelling of Lincoln—as many places in the state have now been renamed.
Roots, the first television miniseries, held us spellbound shortly thereafter, in January of 1977. Pretty sure Mrs. B.O. would have had something to say about the circumcision scene of Kunta Kinte, which I have never forgotten.
We stood at a unique intersection of time and place. But I didn’t understand any of this, any more than I understood the “dawn’s early light” line in the Star Spangled Banner or the “douche” line from Blinded by the Light. The Pledge of Allegiance grounded and centered us, but it could have been anything: Dr. Seuss, or Hawaii Pono’i, the Hawaii state song we also frequently sang from memory; it carries virtually the same melody as My Country Tis of Thee.
But the song I most remember from that significant year is The Hustle.
To celebrate the Bicentennial year, the entire school performed The Hustle out on the brown lawn, all lined up in rows under the sun, each of us with red, white, and blue pompoms we’d made ourselves out of tissue paper, dancing in unison.
The Hustle has no lyrics, which in retrospect was perhaps more presciently fitting for such a complicated intersection of past history, history in the making, cultures, and literal geography.
So let’s DO IT.
Do The Hustle