I approached fourth grade with dread. Everyone knew the meanest teacher in the school was Mrs. Hendon, and I was assigned to her class. That first day began as all school days did: the bell would ring, the principal would come on the PA system, and intone: “Please stand for the pledge of allegiance to the Flag.” We all stood in Mrs. Hendon’s class, all except a one little girl named Audrey.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag…” Why isn’t Audrey standing? Doesn’t she realize that Mrs. Hendon is her teacher and Mrs. Hendon eats disobedient children for breakfast?
“… of the United States of America. And to the republic…” We glanced at each other. What was about to happen? Why wasn’t Mrs. Hendon exploding? Maybe she had a time delay fuse!
“… for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible…” Surely any moment now, Mrs. Hendon would jerk Audrey up out of her seat by ear and cause her to grow two inches.
“…with liberty and justice for all.”
Then we all sat down. No Mrs. Hendon explosion. No explanation.
At recess, the boys got together and decided Audrey didn’t stand for the pledge because she was a communist. We also decided that Mrs. Hendon was a communist, too, but she was faking it better than Audrey.
I don’t really remember how many days passed, but I know every day when we stood for the pledge, Audrey would stay seated. We all thought in our hearts, “Communist!”
I think it was Charles Brown who said it out loud one day. We had finished, taken our seats, and were ready to hear the announcements when he said, “Audrey’s a communist!” Audrey put her head down on her desk and began to cry.
Then we saw the full wrath of Mrs. Hendon. She turned toward us with clenched teeth, and scowl that made our crew cuts stand up straight. If the wrath of God is anything like the wrath of Mrs. Hendon, I don’t want to ever experience the wrath of God.
“Be quiet!” she hissed. Then she turned to Audrey and with great gentleness told her to go to the Sick Room. This made no sense at all. Though we knew communists were sick, we thought they belonged in jail.
Then Mrs. Hendon, slightly calmed, turned back to us. Audrey, she explained, was a Jehovah’s Witness. I raised my hand to ask what in the world was a Jehovah’s Witness. I knew only of Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Catholics. Mrs. Hendon said Jehovah’s Witnesses were taught it was wrong to say the pledge of allegiance. They loved their country, she said, but they believe you should only make a pledge to God.
We were all thoroughly confused. Mrs. Hendon saw our puzzlement, and went on to explain that liberty for all, which we had just pledged, meant that people like Audrey had the liberty not to say the pledge. Being an American, she said, meant you were free to worship God the way you saw fit; and if your religion said not to say the pledge, that was okay.
She must have realized she was not getting through to us. Being free to disagree was not big among fourth graders in 1969. Mrs. Hendon decided to put it in terms we could understand: “If I hear one of you making fun of Audrey again, I will spank you with my board of education.” That we understood.
The rest of the year passed. While we stood for the pledge every morning, Audrey stayed seated. We did not call her a communist; in fact, we learned she was a lot of fun at recess and could clean your clock playing dodgeball.
The refusal of NFL players to stand for the National Anthem made me think about this. I’m proud to be an American. I stand for the pledge and say it loudly. But I’m also proud that liberty for all means Audrey got to stay seated. I’m also embarrassed, that I called her a communist, just because she wasn’t like me.
Jesus said, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” Whenever I judge someone, it says a lot more about me than it does about them.