I’m not much of a flag waver, really. I always thought that author James Baldwin captured my feelings precisely in Notes of a Native Son when he wrote:
I still believe, heart and soul, in the shining ideals of democracy, however —equality under the law, the American common school, a free, high-quality education for all children, simply because they deserve it. Thirty years of teaching school, observing practice and policy, have given me a crust of cynicism about many things related to school and country. But I never lost my enthusiasm for the Memorial Day parade.
For 25 years, my middle school band students marched through the small town where I teach and live, in the Memorial Day Parade. There was a whole set of traditions around this event, which grew larger and more complicated every year: the aural passing down of our special drum cadences from the self-appointed 8th grade drum line leaders to younger would-be hotshot percussionists, mending the color guard flags originally purchased through a pizza sale back in ’88, and patching up hand-me-down equipment begged from local high schools when they replaced drums and sousaphones. There was never a budget for this—middle schools don’t typically sponsor marching bands—but somehow there were always T-shirts, drinks at the end of the parade route, and an absolutely stunning handmade banner that two moms whipped up with lots of lamé and sequins. In the year before I left the middle school, we marched 300 students, on a morning when the sky was a sapphire blue, and Air Force jets flew overhead as we rounded the corner by the cemetery.
This took up a fair amount of teaching time. I would get on my knees and ask my colleagues for 20 minutes on the Friday before the parade to assemble five bands into a single marching unit and take a few spins around the parking lot. One year, as I was trying to get the back of the band to master pinwheel corners, the front rank (some particularly rambunctious 8th grade trombones) marched right up the sidewalk, opened the front doors, and led the band, playing America the Beautiful at top volume, through the school hallways. By the time I sprinted up to the head of the band (and the principal popped, red-faced, out of his office), marching through the school was a done deal—and became yet another annual tradition.
I was always clear with my students about the meaning and
purpose of Memorial Day. My students would occasionally whine about how
“boring” America the Beautiful was—Mr.
Holland’s band played Louie, Louie, so why
couldn’t we? I would explain that even though they were in middle school, they
were old enough to dedicate a morning to thanking generations of patriots, acknowledging their sacrifices, and that
older people, watching them march by, would be pleased and proud.
We do this, I told them, to remember and honor those who
made it possible for you to live in this beautiful little town, in this safe
world. People like my uncle, Donald Tjapkes, who was killed at 19 in the first
wave of Marines capturing
Joey Hoeker, of course—on the Wall. And I lost it, right in
front of all those kids.
I went uptown today to the library, and grabbed a program
for this weekend’s events. Inside was a picture of U.S. Army Chief Warrant
Officer Monica Narhi, now a helicopter pilot and part of a medevac rescue crew,
most recently deployed in
Thanks, Monica. This verse of America the Beautiful is for you.
O Beautiful, for heroes proved
In liberating strife
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life.
God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
And liberty in law.