I am teacher by profession but, like many of you, I find my greatest challenge is in crafting meaningful lessons for my own children. Lately I have struggled with how I can teach my daughter that appearing to be one thing and actually being it are not always the same.
She wants to enter a school writing contest with the theme of “Heroes around me.” I am afraid that she’ll compose a bland piece that argues her grandpa is a hero because he fought in the Vietnam war. Her grandpa is truly a hero, but he’ll be the first one to tell you that fighting in a war doesn’t make a person a hero. He would tell her, it’s not what we do that matters, but why we do it. While I can live with her superficial understanding of heroism (she is only in second grade) I am perplexed by society’s craving for cosmetic displays of substantive values.
For example, I recently saw President Trump hug an American flag, an action no one would argue is divisive, after giving a speech to business leaders. Whether sincere or not, hugging that flag was meant to been interpreted as an act of patriotism. Our president has also declared that those who kneel in protest during the National Anthem — an extremely divisive act, but one that exercises the very freedoms that flag guarantees — “shouldn’t be in the country.”
We are at a time in history when we are drowning in information, but more than ever we are being to asked to make important decisions with only our eyes. I agree it looks bad to kneel during the anthem, and that it looks great to hug a flag. But when you explore the reasons why someone is performing certain actions, the answers become more nuanced.
It was refreshing this week to have Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox quote Judge Learned Hand: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women.”
As we approach the 4th of July, with our flag T-shirts, flag paper plates, flag napkins and other outward appearances of patriotism, my challenge is to teach my daughter that heroism, like patriotism, is more that what we show on the outside. I would like her to understand that the Fathers we honor: Washington, Jefferson, Madison and the others, were seen once as seditious criminals. But their reasons were just.
My responsibility is to teach and model through example that morals are more important sometimes than laws or policies. I want her to understand that laws like separate but equal, executive orders like 9066 (the one that created internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II) and policies that separate families are unAmerican. I need her to understand that laws, policies, executive orders can change, but that our values and morals individually and collectively are what matter and what should guide those changes.
As the firecrackers boom and the rockets leave red glares across the sky, we will celebrate once again the good in this country. I hope she will also celebrate the good that is in the immigrant crossing the perilous desert by the dawn’s early light. I hope she can sing praises to the immigrant who risks life, death and, now, separation of family, because she is driven by an American value, the possibility of a better life. Because I need my daughter to know that such an immigrant is more heroic and patriotic than I am as ketchup drips down my shirt while eating a cheeseburger and holding a sparkler.
How do you teach someone you love that the American spirit ignited so long ago by the founders we revere cannot be contained by borders, or policies, or laws, or executive orders? That spirit has and will continue to spread and spark fires of hope in people across the globe. I hope that she and her generation have the wisdom to recognize the difference between superficial displays of it and the real thing when it comes crawling across the desert in search of Liberty’s flame.
Gary Bigelow, Murray, teaches English at The Academy for Math, Engineering & Science.