In early October 2017, India Landry, a 17-year-old Houston student, was expelled from her high school after deciding to remain seated during the Pledge of Allegiance. Her mother filed a lawsuit against the district. In light of #TakeTheKnee, Colin Kaepernick’s controversial silent protest movement against police brutality, the event drew national media attention and added a new dimension to the debate over the significance of the National Anthem and the American flag.
Landry’s decision to sit was, to say the least, a big deal.
1600 miles away in Sleepy Hollow, the attitude is different.
When I hear the words “I pledge allegiance…” over the school intercom, I rarely see anyone stand up. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a student throw their hand over their heart, face the stars and stripes with a smile, and proudly pledge allegiance to the flag, and to the United States of America, and to the Republic, for which it stands, et cetera, et cetera. Most people – myself included – use these thirty-odd seconds of patriotism to pack up belongings, check phones, or commiserate with friends over the test they just took or the homework they have to do later. There are rarely, if ever, consequences of any nature. A reaction like the one India Landry received would be unheard of in our district.
The Pledge of Allegiance has been a longtime subject of controversy. In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that it was students’ Constitutional right to abstain from pledging after a few Jehovah’s Witnesses students in West Virginia were expelled from their school for refusing to pledge for religious reasons. In the 1990s, the ACLU repeatedly defended students whose schools had disciplined them for not pledging. Later, the inclusion of the words “under God” in the oath led to a Supreme Court case, where it was decided that schools could not mandate the pledge on the basis of an unwelcome endorsement of religion. Time and time again, students’ right to free speech has prevailed.
But the lack of pledging I see in school today does not seem to be an expression of free speech. Some students do choose to sit for political reasons, but it seems like the majority stay seated out of mere disinterest. Standing up takes a level of extra effort that some of us just don’t feel like putting in, and few people are enthusiastic enough about America to go the extra mile. The fact that lighthearted conversation is a more common sound than stony silence during the pledge proves that, at our school, staying seated is generally not intended to be a radical political act. Rather, it’s a remarkably passive exercise in indifference.
There are still some Sleepy Hollow students who choose to participate in the pledge. Helen Tejada, a junior, says that it’s important to say the pledge because “it promotes a certain level of patriotism in students…it reminds us to appreciate our country.” She argues that saying the pledge is a way of appreciating our country’s history: America is far from perfect, but the ideals of “liberty and justice for all” are something the pledge reminds us to strive for and work towards. For some students, reciting the Pledge is an important daily reminder of what it means to be an American.
Still, widespread indifference to the Pledge speaks volumes about our generation’s decreased interest in political action, patriotic or otherwise. With the exception of a small portion of students who either stand proudly to support America or stay seated as a means of protest, most people just don’t care. Collectively, our generation has not experienced a patriotism-eliciting war or international crisis on the scale that previous generations have. And although social, economic, and political injustice runs rampant throughout American society, those of us who don’t experience it personally have a tendency to tune it out. As a result, many students fall into a grey area of political apathy. Whether this will translate into weak future voter turnout is open for debate, but it should be a cause for concern.
Students have the right to refuse participation in the Pledge of Allegiance. This is a right protected by the Constitution, and it should absolutely be taken advantage of when necessary. However, students should be more thoughtful in their approach to this historically controversial issue. No one can be forced to behave one way or another when it’s time to say the Pledge, but students would do well to learn a little more about the significance of the oath before making a decision. Regardless of perspective, civilian political involvement of any kind is good for our democracy. As the future leaders of the United States, our generation should do more to educate ourselves about both the progress America has made and the immense distance we still have to go.