I can remember not wanting to stand for the morning pledge in my Ceramics class. I’m certain that it was my junior year of high school, but I can’t recall what set me off. In my first class of the day, I challenged myself to remain seated while the morning announcements crackled throughout the school. The faceless administrator may have started or ended with the Pledge of Allegiance, with boiler-plate business in between, I can’t remember. I just remember sitting nervously as my white peers stood around me. Their gazes pointed in the general direction of a flag, hands on chests, chanting in unison.
My Ceramics teacher didn’t notice, until 30 second in, that something was wrong. We locked eyes, me sweating behind the bust of Nefertiti that I was trying to recreate and he, behind a twitching mustache. I understood that twitch to mean that he was angry. It only twitched when he pulled student-made “smoking devices” out of the kiln. “Who made this??” he’d demand, gripping a crudely made bowl.
He waited until the pledge was over and students sat down to chew me out. “Halliburton! You get on your feet for the pledge.” It sounded like he wanted to end that statement with a clipped “dammit.” I remember taking a breath before I replying: “Until that flag lives up to its promise, to me and my people, I won’t stand for it.” Admittedly, my voice was hurried and shaky because I don’t do conflict. It makes my face hot and my eyes tear up.
The hush in the room was noticeable. The white students stared at me with wide eyes; some frightened, some confused. But all were coming to the quick realization that: OH SHIT, THIS IS A RACE SITUATION. My teacher’s mustache was shaking off the Richter Scale. “If you can’t stand for the pledge,” he spit out, “you can sit in the hallway.”
I didn’t say anything. I quietly began working on my Nefertiti, sculpting her nose like the one in my encyclopedia. The class eventually settled into its normal shuffle, chatter rose and mingled with the 70’s Gold FM our teacher played every morning. However, under the sweet melodies of Bread, the mustache and I understood that we were engaged in a stand-off.
The next day, I remained seated while the pledge sounded off. The mustache told me to “GET!” And I got. The pledge is only about 45 seconds so everyone could see that my little trip to the hallway was silly. When it was over, I returned to work on Nefertiti’s smug smile. Karen Carpenter sang while the mustache crossed his arms in simmering rage. We kept this up for a full week. Mustache, Nefertiti, and Me, quietly lobbing the ball back and forth while Crosby, Stills, and Nash strummed their guitars.
Eventually there was a quiet concession on behalf of the mustache. I stopped going to the hallway and he stopped saying anything about it. Students continued to chant the pledge while I sat amongst them adding clay to Nefertiti’s receding chin.
The only event that got me to my feet was when the Twin Towers fell the following year. In my senior year of high school, I was still going strong in my new first period class, Food and Nutrition. I sat quietly and it seemed that my teacher didn’t mind. On September 11th, 2001, New York City was on fire. The fine particles and acrid scent would reach Suffolk County before the day was over. I stood for the pledge after that. My heart wasn’t in it but I stood because we were NEW YORK STRONG.
I even stood while brown kids were getting harassed and beaten in the streets. The Indian restaurant my mom and I went to closed for the week because the owner’s son was curb-stomped by patriotic white kids. I stood for a flag that would lose its shit during a national crisis. I hated myself for performing a feeling that wouldn’t last longer than a year. I understood, at the age of 17, that those planes weren’t the magic bullet to end racism and forge solidarity in our long-broken nation. I hated myself for giving up my sit-in for white students to freely say things like “towel head” and “we’ll put a boot in your ass.”
Years later, I would sometimes recite the Ballad of Not Saying the Pledge, misremembering that I maybe I was kind of an asshole. I’d tell the ballad to friends, laughing at the shit-stirrer I was back then. After watching Colin Kaepernick take a knee before playing football for millions, I realized that I had it wrong. I certainly was not an asshole kid who liked to stir shit. I was actually quite timid and wanted to be liked by everyone. But there was something about me that shifted, something that made me angry about performing for white people every day. I found out that nothing changed after 9/11. The flags we quickly bought were just tiny bandages desperately covering a festering wound in our history.
Fifteen years, hundreds of police shootings, and a maniacal president later; the Klan and the Neo-Nazis are back. A football player has taken on the wrath of an entire nation who still believe the lies of a Band-Aid flag. Kaepernick’s only crime is his simple attempt to clean the wound that has grown poisonous over centuries. Instead of performing for white America, he kneels.
I’m obviously not sorry for my small-scaled high school protest. I’m a teacher now and I hope that I meet a young version of myself who is not as timid as I was. I hope they that they continue to hold a mirror up to a nation that still makes false promises. And if they have to be dismissed to the hallway, I hope they go proudly. I’ll join them.