Standing my ground
I learned the Pledge of Allegiance early in elementary school. I learned it, but I never felt comfortable saying it, even as a little kid. I probably couldn’t have articulated this back then, but it seemed like something that shouldn’t have to be forced. That’s the way I felt about prayers in religious services, too: Either they should be natural and sincere, or you shouldn’t say them, because, I mean, what’s the point?
But during an assembly near the beginning of second grade at Coventry School, when we were supposed to be reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, an older kid standing next to me said, “All you have to do is say ‘watermelon, watermelon,’ and no one will know the difference.” So that’s what I did, for years, for the Pledge and for prayers.
Then when I got to Heights High, in the mid-‘60s, when protesting was the norm, I decided that I no longer needed to say “watermelon”—or anything—and when the rest of the school was saying the Pledge, I just kept my mouth shut. Then it occurred to me that I didn’t have to stand up for the Pledge, either. Standing for the Pledge was not a law, and it was within my rights not to participate.
No one ever said anything about it—though I got a lot of dirty looks from teachers and fellow students—until one day in May of my 11th-grade year. I guess I was more noticeable that day, sitting in the first row of the second section of the Heights High auditorium seats.
I and my friend Harry were sitting together there, and when everyone else stood up for the Pledge and started reciting it, we sat silently in our seats. Until a teacher, Alva Kilgore, a huge guy who had played professional football, spotted us, walked over and stood in front of us, grabbed each of us by the fronts of our shirts and calmly lifted us out of our seats.
I quickly started explaining to him all of the reasons we didn’t feel the need to say the Pledge, but he interrupted, saying, “That’s fine. You don’t have to say it. But stand up, out of respect—not for your country, if that’s the way you feel, but for the other students, who are standing.”
I said, “Okay. That sounds fair.”
Then Mr. Kilgore added, “Plus, it will probably keep you from getting beaten up by some of these guys.”
Harry and I nodded and thanked him for the advice.
Some of those guys did rough me up, however, for other forms of protest. It was the mid-‘60s and the height of the Vietnam War, and the burgeoning, and growing, anti-war movement. I marched, carrying signs, in protests all over the area. Many Heights students did. People called us names, and FBI agents tried to intimidate us by taking our pictures at close range. But no one touched us. Until we protested inside Heights High.
One day in May, we—the protester types—wore black armbands as a way to honor the soldiers who had died in the Vietnam War. That seemed to make us targets to a bunch of big guys who didn’t understand the nature of our actions that day. I was on my way to the choir room, between third and fourth periods, when a much larger guy named Tom (I can tell you his last name if you want to know), grabbed me by my hair and slammed my forehead into a locker. I tried to explain the purpose of the armband, but he yelled bad words at me and called me all kinds of names.
There were other times, too, when those guys manhandled me and others. We all shared our stories and compared notes.
For the final assembly of that school year, I was looking for a seat when I spotted an empty one just one seat away from that guy Tom. I took it. And when it was time for the Pledge of Allegiance, I decided to ignore Mr. Kilgore’s advice, and I remained seated and silent, just to bait Tom. He glared at me the entire time and practically screamed the Pledge.
It was not quite as brave of me as it might appear, though, since the seat I took was on the aisle. And I was totally ready to run.
David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.