I remember standing with my hand on my heart, pledging allegiance to the flag, words I didn't understand when I was in first grade-- indivisible, liberty, justice-- but which thrilled me,
when I stood soldier straight, my small chair pushed under my desk, all of my classmates facing the flag in the corner of the room, all of us reciting the words together, solemnly, seriously, proudly.
We always sang a song after the pledge. "My Country Tis of Thee" or "America, the Beautiful." I didn't understand all of those words either, but I loved the sound of them. The pilgrim's pride and the fruited plains. Of thee I sing and crowning thy good with brotherhood.
I loved the early morning ritual, the squeak of desks, the shuffle of sleeves as we raised our hands to our hearts. I loved my country, believing the lessons my teachers taught me about justice for all, the brave troops fighting for our freedom, the stars and stripes that must always be saluted, the cloth never to touch the ground.
It was a childish love-- I know that now. One that delighted in drawing Columbus's three ships sailing the ocean blue and clapping my hands while singing "This land was made for you and me."
In first grade I didn't know the darker, more complicated reality.
This morning I avoided the news for a while, something I tend to do lately. When something bad happens in our country I don't want to know everything about it. Almost twenty years ago I watched terrified teenagers running out of Columbine High School with their hands over their heads and I was horrified. Five years ago I watched six-year-olds holding hands and crying as they were led by their teachers out of Newton Elementary and I was sick to my stomach.
Another week. Another shooting in America.
We are better than this. Aren't we?
I force myself to watch, again, the running, terrified children. The cowardly politicians offering worthless thoughts and prayers, or worse, lecturing us that it is too early to discuss guns, while they turn around and take more money from the NRA.
The texts the students sent as they barricaded themselves inside their classrooms. The pile of backpacks in the parking lot. A waiting mother's anguished face, a mark of ashes on her forehead.
I forgot it was Ash Wednesday. Kids packed their backpacks that morning not knowing that at the end of the day they'd be dropping them as they ran for their lives.
In the news stories they don't show the flags in the classrooms, but we know they are there. Hanging in the corners. Flags the kids faced when they said their pledge in the morning, hands over beating hearts.
Some of those kids never left the building when the bell rang at the end of the school day.
Our country is sick and I don't love it anymore.