Stars and stripes

“Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?” That, of course, was the hopeful question asked by Francis Scott Key as he was held aboard a British ship as it bombarded Fort McHenry during a September night in 1814 during the War of 1812. The fort withstood the assault, and the American flag was still waving when morning came. Key’s poem, “The Defense of Fort McHenry” was later set to music and became “The Star Spangled Banner,” our national anthem. Accompanied with the display of our flag, for many years this has caused citizens to reflect on the history of what makes our country great and inspired them to serve or commemorate the sacrifices and contributions of countless people of our nation, both in the past and the present.

In the past several weeks, a small group of veterans from the American Legion have visited every school in Chautauqua County to deliver a presentation about our nation’s flag. County Commander John Miga (Post 62), Vice Commander Craig Sutton (Post 62), and Commander Walt Sedlmayer (Post 59), typically visit schools in the northern part of the county to teach fourth-grade students about our flag and give details for the annual contest, “What the Flag Means to Me.” A competition that has been held for decades, students are challenged to write a short essay with their personal opinions of the flag. Ten are chosen from across the county, with a first place prize of $100.

The presentation by the veterans reviews specific meanings of words such as pledge, allegiance, republic, indivisible, liberty, and justice as well as the symbols used on the flag itself. One video, in a somewhat a typical scenario seen today, includes a boy who sees no reason to remove his hat during the playing of the national anthem and raising of the flag. At a ball game, he keeps his hat on despite the urging of his brother, a recently returned veteran and volunteer firefighter. In time, his brother and an elderly neighbor, also a veteran, help to change the boy’s attitude as he comes to understand the meaning behind the flag and the people it represents. An Olympian and a firefighter from 9/11 are also interviewed about how they feel about the flag, with touching moments where the viewer needs to wipe away a tear or two. A short animated video shows a boy going back in time to learn about some of the events of our nation’s founding. Through this experience, he is able to share with his class what the flag and Pledge of Allegiance mean to him.

Schools across the nation have traditionally included their state’s history in the curriculum of fourth grade, making this level an ideal age group for the flag competition. Part of this includes the events that occurred in their state during important times such as the native people of the area, the Revolutionary War, the Constitution, the War of 1812, and the growth of their state. Fresh in the students’ minds, they can relate the flag to events as early as the John Peter Zenger trial in New York City, which was a forerunner to freedom of the press in the early 1700s. In later years there is the Stamp Act, New York battles such as the Battle of Saratoga, the Boston Tea Party, writing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the War of 1812. They learn about important people from their own state and other well-known ones like Washington, Jefferson, Nathan Hale, and Patrick Henry. Certainly, immigration is studied and students come to realize that many people made contributions to our country with their hard work, perseverance, self-reliance, and talent; not just the famous.

Most citizens are not famous, yet quietly work behind the scenes. This is what the veterans do as they present at each school, each year. Having served at one time in the military, they continue to serve as they educate students about our proud flag and all it symbolizes. Many students come to realize that when we face or fly the flag, it is not honoring a piece of fabric, but remembering all the people that it represents. As far as veterans, a well-known poem expresses how many feel about them and their continued willingness to protect our freedoms.

“It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the soldier, not the organizer, who gave us the freedom to demonstrate.

It is the soldier, who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is

draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.”

Before we know it, Flag Day will be here and fourth-graders across the county will have had the opportunity to share their feelings about our flag through their short essays. Like last year, space in this column may be given to some of the winners so that their fresh and patriotic thoughts can be shared with a wider audience. They will remind us that although we may have the right to not remove a hat or stand for the pledge and flag, many people choose to show honor because they understand history and respect their own neighbors and American ancestors. They know its true meaning. It’s a way to say, “I remember.”

Make it a good week and find thankful reasons for being a citizen of our nation. Oh, say, can you see over the land of the free?