I’m not much of a flag waver, really. I always thought that author James Baldwin captured my feelings precisely in Notes of a Native Son when he wrote:
I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.
These days, perpetual criticism is essential. We are headed into dark times, I think, redefining the meaning of patriotism and sacrifice. It’s easy to lose faith in our government and the grand experiment—all men created equal—that founded this nation. It’s easy to let hope die when our rights have been systematically eroded by power-hungry politicians. When our children are not able to read certain books or study our actual national history, we’re in trouble.
I still believe, however, heart and soul, in the shining but imperfect ideals of a democratic education –equality under the law, the American common school, a free, high-quality education for all children, simply because they deserve it. Thirty years of teaching school have given me a hard crust of cynicism about many things related to education and America. But I never lost my enthusiasm for the Memorial Day parade.
For 25 years, my middle school band students marched through the small town where I taught and lived, in the Memorial Day Parade. There was a whole set of traditions around this event, which grew larger and more complicated every year: the aural passing down of our special drum cadences from the self-appointed 8th grade drumline leaders, mending the color guard flags originally purchased through a pizza sale back in ’88, and patching up hand-me-down snares and sousaphones scrounged from the high school.
There was never a budget for this–middle schools don’t typically have marching bands–but somehow there were always T-shirts, and cold drinks at the end of the parade route. We had a stunning handmade banner that two moms whipped up with lots of lamé and sequins. In my last year, we marched nearly 300 students, on a morning when the sky was a sapphire blue and Air Force jets flew overhead as we rounded the corner by the cemetery.
This took up a fair amount of teaching time. I would get on my knees and beg colleagues for 20 minutes on the Friday before the parade, to assemble five bands into a single marching unit and take a few spins around the parking lot. One year, as I was trying to get the back of the band to master pinwheel corners, the front rank (rambunctious 8th grade trombones) marched right up the sidewalk, opened the front doors, and led the band, playing America the Beautiful at top volume, through the school hallways. By the time I sprinted up to the head of the band (and the principal popped, red-faced, out of his office), marching through the school was a done deal–and became yet another annual tradition.
I was always clear with my students about the meaning and purpose of Memorial Day. They would occasionally whine about how boring America the Beautiful was–Mr. Holland’s band played Louie, Louie, right? I explained that they were old enough to dedicate a morning to thanking local patriots and acknowledging the sacrifices made by Americans over centuries. Older people, watching them march by, would be pleased to hear traditional music. It was about respect.
We do this, I told them, to remember and honor those who made it possible for you to live in this beautiful little town, in this safe world. People like my Uncle Don, who died in February 1945, part of the Fourth Marine Division which stormed Iwo Jima. Or Ray Shineldecker and Joey Hoeker, two high school classmates who lost their lives in Viet Nam. I had lots of funny stories to tell about Joey, who lived around the corner in my old neighborhood–a big, goofy kid who was what guidance counselors in the 1960s called “not college material.”
On our last band trip to Washington D.C., after performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I was loading tympani onto the buses as my students toured the Mall. A few girls came running up, calling “Mrs. Flanagan! We found him!” Found who, I asked.
Joey Hoeker, of course–on the Wall. And I lost it, right in front of all those kids.
I thank those who served and sacrificed so I can love my country, and criticize it, too. A hat tip to all the band teachers and student musicians who help make Memorial Day meaningful this weekend. And to hero teachers and band directors everywhere– donating yet another weekend to the community –please keep teaching, in spite of everything.
And another hat tip to community bands, providing the same service. I’ll be in Northport, Michigan on Memorial Day–playing Taps from the porch of another flutist, then settling in the cemetery, to play the National Anthem, Sousa marches–and a tribute to the Armed Services. Join us at 10:30 a.m. You won’t be sorry.