This is going to be delicate.
How in the world am I going to maneuver this one? It is going to come up. I know it is going to come up. It has to. How could it not? Unless one’s address is etched onto the entrance of a cave, they have all heard about it. I have got to give this serious thought. It is my job to answer questions. I have to be prepared. So, I thought long and hard about what I was going to say. And then, I waited in anticipation.
Monday came and went, and no question. Tuesday came and went, and no question. Wednesday and Thursday yielded the same result. Friday looked to be a repeat of the previous four days, and then it happened. With an hour left if the school day, the question that I had anticipated had to come, was asked. A hand went up in the back of my class and one of my students asked me how I felt about the NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem.
I am a high school history teacher. I have long subscribed to the position that teachers should keep their political and social views out of the classroom. I believe my role, when the difficult issues are raised, is to explain the opposing views to the best of my ability, and encourage my scholars to critically think their way to a position. After all, as I remind them often, they are just a couple of years away from being full participants in our democracy when they cast their first votes.
I explained to them that this is an emotional issue and there are good people on both sides with honest opinions. It partly comes down to how one views the flag. Is it a physical entity made of fabric that should always command the deepest respect, therefore kneeling before it when the National Anthem is played is deeply disrespectful? Or, is the flag a visual representation of an ideal? In the case of the United States, that ideal encompasses democracy, and above all, our First Amendment freedoms. I reiterated that there are strong opinions on both sides.
To prepare for this inevitable question that I knew I would be asked, I paid close attention to Twitter over that weekend. In particular, I zeroed in on tweets by veterans. After all, it is veterans who many referred to as they made their points in this debate.
Did veterans serve, and in the case of many, render the ultimate sacrifice, only to see NFL players disrespect the flag and indirectly their service by taking a knee? Or, did veterans serve, and in the case of many, render the ultimate sacrifice, to defend the right of the NFL players to take a knee in social protest?
As a microcosm of the larger debate, veterans also weighed in on both sides. Some expressing anger, others expressing that they served to defend the right to protest. One tweet in particular caught my attention. It was a picture of a 97-year-old World War II veteran. He had his World War II service cap on and he was taking a knee. He said, “People have a right to protest.”
In October 2012 I saw a World War II service cap that also caught my attention. It was resting, prominently displayed, in my father’s casket. This allowed me to get personal with my students. I shared with them that my father, grandfather and uncle, God rest their souls, had served their country in World War II, World War I, and Korea. I told them that I believed that my father and my uncle would have been livid at those NFL players, but my grandfather would have probably supported their right to protest.
And then I waited. I waited for follow up questions that never came. I was looking at 33 teenagers who all seemed to have the same contemplative look on their faces. I then thought of my role as a teacher . . . mission accomplished.
Lawrence J. Burns