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Reflections About the Presidential Race, and the First Amendment

By Esther L. Clarke  Posted by Walter Brasch (about the submitter)       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   11 comments

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View Ratings | Rate It Headlined to H2 11/8/08

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It is just starting to sink in.  

 I called out to our youngest daughter, Gillian, as she set off down the road to meet the bus that she should be gracious. Don't gloat I said. She said “yeah right, after what they've put me through at school, this is going to be fun.” She was second in her class, academically, throughout seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth grades; her grades made her automatically eligible to apply for admission to the National Junior Honor Society.  However, she is not a member, and has never been; the handful of teachers sitting on the NJHS selections committee at Elk Lake School District in Dimock, Pa., voted down her application, twice, after which she never applied again.  

The reason her membership was disallowed was this:  after the U.S. invasion of Iraq she and her sisters decided, in protest, not to stand for the pledge to the flag.  Hilary was in eighth grade and Heather in tenth at the time, and both had been named members of the NJHS, in their turn, before the issue of the Iraq war and their protest to it came up. To not stand for the pledge was a dramatic, traumatic decision which affected all of them significantly. Many teachers were outraged. Fellow students were often abusive.  

Hilary and Heather were already up in the high school at the time, so there were two of them to face the music together. And, for a while, two or three of their classmates sat too, in solidarity, but one by one, under pressure from the faculty, the administration, their peers, and their parents, all but Hilary and Heather were forced back to their feet. 

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Gillian was twelve and in the sixth grade. She waged her protest all alone in the elementary school. She was sent to the hall. She was sent to the office. She was browbeaten and bullied, and still she stood (or sat) her ground. It was in the fall of 2004, when she was in eighth grade, that Gillian received the letter stating that she was eligible for membership in the National Junior Honor Society. She completed the paperwork, obtained the necessary references, and submitted her application. In due course she learned that Elk Lake's board of selections had voted to deny her application for membership.  

Being of a curious nature, I spoke with a few of her teachers, most of whom did not sit on the board of selections.  According to her French teacher, Kathleen Host, Gillian  was "an excellent student, helpful, with a good attitude";  her earth science teacher, James Eastman, said that she was "among the best students in the school, period"; and Timothy Woolcock, her ecology teacher, said that she "does well (and her) academics speak for themselves."  Even the school superintendent, Dr. William Bush, said, "She is an exemplary student. She works very hard." Her geometry teacher, George Delano, said that he knew it was because she wouldn't stand for the pledge that she had not been admitted to the NJHS; her civics teacher, Fred Hein, said that although Gillian was exercising her constitutional rights by refusing to stand, that was the reason she was rejected; Mr. Eastman said that he did not approve of the NJHS, that "It has turned into a popularity contest for students among teachers." 

I also spoke with her geography teacher, Michael Cutri, who headed the selections board. From him I learned that Gillian had met all of the membership criteria--based on scholarship, leadership, service, character and citizenship--except citizenship. "Gillian is a superb student," he said. "She fell short only in the area of citizenship. She doesn't stand for the pledge of allegiance." "So Gillian was denied because she is a bad citizen," I said. He replied, "Yes."  So much for sarcasm. Now she is a senior.

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The 2008 election is over, Barack Obama has won, and I can't blame the child for wanting to enjoy the moment.  I watched her reach the end of the dirt road, turn the corner, and start up the hill to Brooks Road. I looked down the valley at the scattered houses of my nearest neighbors. I heard the school bus reach the top of the hill and begin its descent.  I pondered the concept of good grace in victory, briefly. I let out an experimental yell. It felt really good. I yelled again; I think I whooped. With great difficulty I managed to lift my great-great-grandmother's dinner bell high enough off the porch to set it ringing:  that bell hasn't been rung in over forty years; there must be some significance in that. The noise woke Heather, who has volunteered tirelessly for many weeks for the Obama campaign, while simultaneously attending college classes and working almost full time. She yelled out her window for me to be quiet, so of course I rang the bell again. By then the bus had collected Gillian and was on its way across the flat. Hilary emailed from her dorm at Mansfield University, "Even before Obama won but it was obvious that he was going to, people were outside my window screaming 'Obama!! Go Obama!!'  I think pretty much the majority of the students wanted him to win. :)  It is really exciting!!  Yay!" Their father is celebrating today by shoveling out the granary. Life goes on. Good luck to us all, and...yay!  


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Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and professor of journalism emeritus. His current books are Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution , America's Unpatriotic Acts: The Federal Government's Violation of (more...)

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