Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sitting Down For Equal Rights (Published on Matt's Naked Word, 12/2009

Liberty and Justice For All: The Story of A 10 year-old boy with more courage than most grown men.

By Joshua M. Patton.

It is always inspiring to see an act of patriotism. Yet, who are the patriots? What is it that defines that kind of love for your country? The diplomatic answer is that there are many ways to define patriotism and that there is no such thing as perfect patriotism. However as far back as the 17th century, English-speakers were debating about the meaning of this word. What is consistent is a love of country. Not necessarily a defender of the government and often used to describe a disturber of the government. It has always been my belief is that patriotism is a combined love of country and a willingness to take to task the leaders of the country if they go astray.

When I was in grade school, I remember standing up every morning and reciting our morning prayer, I went to a parochial school, and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America. I did not think of it as indoctrination nor do I feel that it had any negative effect on me. In fact, it was more of a time to goof around and change up the words to see how foul one could make the pledge – and sometimes the prayer – before the teacher got wise to what we were up to. However some kids listen to the words they have memorized and actually put some real meaning behind them. Will Phillips, a ten year-old boy for Arkansas is one of those kids.

On a Monday morning in early October, Will made the decision that because he didn’t feel that the government was currently providing “liberty and justice for all,” that he was not going to stand and recite the daily pledge. To have been a fly on the wall to see the face of his substitute teacher when Will gave her what was surely a very reasoned argument for his civil disobedience.

In the small amount of media that has covered this story, the child handles himself better than most interview subjects that have not yet hit puberty. In the Arkansas Times he is quotes as saying that as his teacher grew more angry he was “fuming,” and I understand that. Smart kids are often condescended to in the classroom, especially if they make a reasoned judgment that goes against the mainstream. I recall innocently correcting a mistake a teacher made in a junior high classroom and was invited to “come up and teach the class.” The irony was lost on me. I assumed that this was some Robin Williams Dead Poets Society teaching technique, although it would have been creepy to call this particular teacher, “My Captain.” When I stood, he lost his shit and in a spittle-laden fury I was sent to the Principal’s office.

My mother was of the mind that children have no rights, thus for my 18th birthday she only had to get me a copy of the Bill of Rights and perhaps an ice-cream cake. Luckily for Will, the seeds of his dissent were planted by his parents and they continue to nurture what they have cultivated. Laura and Jay Phillips have been straight supporters of many gay rights causes. Little Will has apparently grown up absent of the stigma that most children of religious households have towards homosexuals. He did not see sinners, perverts, or any sort of abominations to the Lord, but people who were just like him. And because this young man is already a measured and contemplative individual, he decided to take a stand, weak pun intended.

During the only television interview of this kid that I have seen, he sat next to his father Jay. During an answer to the Muppet-like John Roberts, he explained that he told his teacher to jump off of a bridge “solemnly and with a little malice in his voice.” His father buries his face in mock exasperation, but before that I noticed an expression I was very familiar with because I wear it often. It is the expression that comes over a parent’s face when he or she realizes that one day their child is going to be far more intelligent than they ever were.

When I first heard of this story, I was watching the John Roberts segment. When I listened to the careful and articulate answers of this 10 year-old patriot, I practically welled up. We are a nation that is hungry for leaders. Once the progressive leaders in this country started getting killed off and publicly disgraced, we have had a hard time finding a person to rally around. We stand around waiting for the next Dr. King or RFK. It is how President Obama won the White House, by sounding like someone who could lead us like progressive, efficient sheep.

Will Phillips is no sheep. This young man believes so much in his rights as an American that he dared exercise them. He believes that the daily pledges of children to the Flag, to the country, matter and come at a price. He was as aghast as I was when John Roberts asked him what a “gaywad” was. His answer was perfect. I wonder if he only told them he was called that because he felt it would be inappropriate to say “fag” on the cable news channel. Gaywad can’t be the go-to insult for kids today, can it?

When I was in parochial school, we would get in trouble for calling someone what in Britain would get you a cigarette. Yet, the admonishments from the teachers were not because we were using derogatory language, but instead we warned not to call someone such a “terrible thing.” The implication being that it was an appropriate word in certain places the way that “bitch” is appropriate at a dog show.

In the words of wrestler Mick Foley, when on Comedy Central, “Will Phillips is a great American.” And it’s true. He is a young man that briefly captured the attention span of the media and got “exclusive”-ed out of the news cycle. His story stays alive on the internet, but I wonder how he is doing today? While I respect his courage, I hope he can lay low and get through school, becoming a lawyer and fighting the good fight. I hope he stays off the radar for awhile and gets to be a kid for a bit longer, but not too much longer. America sometimes likes to eat its young.

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